Tuesday, June 30, 2009

The Great Movies Index

The Great Movies

Roger Ebert's 2002 book "The Great Movies" is a collection of essays about 100 of his favorite films. One evening in the late summer of 2007, after drinking quite a bit of wine, I browsed through a used copy of the book that had washed up in our collection and thought "Man! These movies sound great! They ALL sound great!!!

"I should watch them," I thought. "I should watch them all." And that's how this project was born.

From Aguirre, the Wrath of God in September 2007 to Greed in June 2010, I slowly but surely made my way through the list. Some of the movies I found incredibly moving or entertaining. Others didn't have an enormous impact on me, but I recognized the excellence of their craft, or their historical significance, or their importance to the evolution of the medium. And occasionally -- but not very often -- I just thought Mr. Ebert was mistaken.

It was a terrific journey. I know a lot more about films and film history than I did at the beginning of the project, and -- since the arts are always a mirror to the societies that produce them -- a lot more about the way the people of the 20th Century thought, felt, acted, and deluded themselves with their collective fantasies. I would definitely recommend this project to anyone with three years worth of evenings on their hands!

The Index

2001: A Space Odyssey. October 2007.
The 400 Blows. October 2007.
8 ½. October 2007.

Aguirre, the Wrath of God. September 2007.
Ali: Fear Eats the Soul. November 2007.
All About Eve. November 2007.
The Apartment. January 2008.
Apocalypse Now. March 2008
The Apu Trilogy (Pather Panchali, Aparajito, The World of Apu). January 2008.

Battleship Potemkin. January 2008.
Beauty and the Beast. February 2008.
Belle de Jour. January 2008.
The Bicycle Thief. July 2008.
The Big Sleep. January 2008.
Blow-Up. February 2008.
Body Heat. January 2008.
Bonnie and Clyde. February 2010.
The Bride of Frankenstein. September 2008.
Broken Blossoms. June 2008.

Casablanca. January 2010.
Chinatown. March 2010.
Citizen Kane. November 2009.
City Lights. September 2009.

Days of Heaven. March 2008.
The Decalogue. June 2008.
Detour. March 2008.
Do the Right Thing. October 2009.
Double Indemnity. March 2008.
Dracula. September 2009.
Dr. Strangelove. April 2010.
Duck Soup. October 2007.

E.T. September 2009.
The Exterminating Angel. September 2009.

Fargo. November 2009.
Floating Weeds. November 2008.

Gates of Heaven. September 2009.
The General. August 2008.
The Godfather. August 2008.
Gone with the Wind. April 2010.
The Grand Illusion. July 2008.
Greed. June 2010.

A Hard Day's Night. February 2010.
Hoop Dreams. February 2010.

Ikiru. September 2008.
It's A Wonderful Life. May 2010.

JFK. July 2008.

La Dolce Vita. August 2008.
The Lady Eve. July 2008.
Last Year at Marienbad. December 2008.
L'Atalante. September 2008.
L'Avventura. October 2008.
Lawrence of Arabia. October 2009.
Le Samourai. October 2008.

M. September 2008.
The Maltese Falcon. November 2008.
Manhattan. December 2009.
McCabe & Mrs. Miller. December 2008.
Metropolis. January 2009.
Mr. Hulot's Holiday. November 2008.
My Darling Clementine. January 2009.
My Life to Live. May 2010.

Nashville. February 2009.
Network. October 2009.
Night of the Hunter. January 2009.
Nosferatu. March 2009.
Notorious. January 2009.

On the Waterfront. May 2009.

Pandora's Box. February 2009.
The Passion of Joan of Arc. March 2009.
Peeping Tom. February 2010.
Persona. February 2009.
Pickpocket. February 2009.
Pinocchio. July 2009.
Psycho. February 2010.
Pulp Fiction. February 2010.

Raging Bull. February 2010.
Red River. March 2009.

Schindler's List. May 2010.
The Seven Samurai. April 2009.
The Seventh Seal. March 2009.
The Shawshank Redemption. March 2010.
The Silence of the Lambs.
December 2009
Singin' in the Rain. April 2009.
Some Like It Hot. March 2009.
Star Wars. January 2010.
Sunset Boulevard. November 2009.
Sweet Smell of Success. May 2009.
Swing Time. June, 2009.

Taxi Driver. April, 2009.
The Third Man. June 2009.
Trouble in Paradise. July 2009.

Un Chien Andalou. June, 2009.
The "Up" Documentaries. November 2007.

Vertigo. January 2010.

The Wild Bunch. July 2009.
Wings of Desire. December 2009.
The Wizard of Oz. October 2009
Woman in the Dunes. May 2009.
A Woman Under the Influence. June 2009.
Written on the Wind. June 2009.

Monday, June 29, 2009

The Great Movies: "The Wild Bunch"

The Wild Bunch
Sam Peckinpah, 1969

The Wild Bunch is a movie that begins with a spectacular orgy of violence, has quite a bit of violence in the middle, and ends with a spectacular orgy of violence. It's the Kill Bill of 1969, I thought while watching it, and then found that Ebert makes the Tarantino comparison as well in his review. It was apparently quite controversial after its initial release, and no wonder -- I didn't even know they HAD this much violence in the 1960s.

If you have the stomach to watch gunmen and innocent bystanders die in agony as bullets rip through their innards, The Wild Bunch is a spectacularly well-made Western. Like most Westerns, it works the clichéd theme of personal codes of honor, but it mixes things up a bit by thinking about the differences between individual and institutional control of the means of violence. Which is to say, it contrasts an old-fashioned band of armed thieves with the sanctioned and semi-sanctioned armed men of a railroad company, the U.S. army, and a splinter faction in the Mexican Civil War. In so doing, the film keeps an admirably neutral tone; we are concerned with the thieves, because they are the point of view characters, but we are not necessarily led to admire them.

The action takes place in and around the Mexican Civil War, which is treated with more subtlety and sympathy than I would have expected in 1969. The militia band we see the most of is, to be sure, a corrupt and poorly led outfit, but in my limited knowledge of the Mexican Civil War, that would have been pretty much par for the course.

A creepy motif that runs through the film is the violence of children. The film opens with an image of a happy bunch of loveable ragamuffins torturing bugs, and throughout the movie kids are often shown participating in violence, sometimes in the background and sometimes in the foreground.

Plot: A wild bunch of thieves want to steal some weapons and sell them to a wild bunch of Mexican soldiers. Meanwhile, another wild bunch of mercenaries in the employ of a railroad want to catch the thieves. The main characters are frequently torn between exigencies and their Code of Loyalty to the men in their own wild bunch and/or their respect for the leaders of the other wild bunches. And then the shooting starts, except the shooting started about five minutes into the movie.

Visuals: Beautifully filmed in vivid color! Early 20th Century towns and encampments in the border deserts are rendered with impressive verisimilitude (excepting only a city park early in the film whose trees and landscaping are WAY more mature than the town that supposedly planted them). People falling off of roofs and cliffs in slow motion as they writhe in terror and in agony from their gunshot wounds have seldom been portrayed so beautifully.

Dialog: Terse and macho, but well-delivered in the service of building relatively well-rounded characters. The film would not suffer from having fewer scenes that end with a bunch of men laughing heartily.

Prognosis: If you like Westerns, there's a lot of The Wild Bunch to like -- it clocks in at about two and a half hours. If you don't like Westerns, and particularly if you don't like cinematic violence, this would be a good one to skip.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

The Monday Quiz LXXIX

Pie Graphs!

For each of these pie charts, identify the topic. Be careful!






Give the answers in the comments.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas is a Knucklehead

Sure, and Scalia is an affable but scary nutjob, and this is not likely to be news to any of you hyperintelligent sexy beasts who follow the L&TM5K. But check this out:

The High Court today shambled to the startling conclusion that school administrators in Arizona had been a little out of line when they conducted a forced strip-search of a 13 year old girl suspected of packing -- wait for it! -- ibuprofin. Even Justice Scalia felt that perhaps people shouldn't have to suffer that kind of indignity! Justice Thomas, however, filed a dissenting opinion.

Thomas complains that his colleagues' ruling "grants judges sweeping authority to second-guess the measures that [school] officials take to maintain discipline in their schools and ensure the health and safety of the students in their charge." And you know what? He's right! And there's a reason for that! It's because Constitutional protections are supposed to be, you know, sweeping and authoritative! And Judges are supposed to enforce them. That is what a justice system is FOR!

But it's pretty inefficient, though, isn't it, all of that second-guessing? It's interesting to boil Thomas' point here (and on most cases, it seems) to its essentials. What he's really arguing is that granting a civil protection (privacy) is going to be a huge hassle for people in authority (school administrators). And that they should be spared that hassle, because it makes it harder for them to wield their authority. Let's extrapolate!

  • Miranda rights? Huge hassle for cops!
  • Humane treatment of prisoners? Huge hassle for jailors!
  • Rental law? Huge hassle for landlords!
  • Labor law? Huge hassle for employers!
  • Environmental law? Huge hassle for industry!
  • Colonists demanding a voice in Parliament? Huge hassle for the King!

There's one thing that can be said for sure about Justice Thomas's conception of the Constitution: it would sure cut back on all the paperwork. And that's good, right?

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

The Thursday Quiz LXXXVIII

The Thursday Quiz!

The Thursday Quiz is a twelve item is-it-or-isn't-it test of your knowledge, reasoning, stamina, and moxie!

Remember always the Fundamental Rules of the Thursday Quiz:

1. The Thursday Quiz is a POP quiz. No research, Googling, Wikiing, or use of reference books. Violators will never be able to look at themselves in the mirror again.

2. Don't get all stressed out about it! It's supposed to be fun!

Real and Bogus in the History of Australia and New Zealand!

What really happened down there in the mysterious South? And what only happened in michael5000's mysterious imagination?

1. Because New Zealand has more rainfall and is much more fertile than Australia, it was colonized by Europeans fully two centuries before colonization of Australia began.

2. The whole thing about Australia being a prison colony is basically a myth. There was a small prison settlement in early Australia, but at no time did the prisoners make up even one percent of the colonial population.

3. The 1839 Treaty of Waitangi was supposed to clarify the respective rights of native Maori peoples and European colonists. Since the English and Maori language versions of the treaty don't quite match, though, arguments over the implications of the treaty continue unabated today.

4. In the late 1800s, the states of Australia were self-governing entities under the British Empire. Only in 1901 did the whole continent unite as the Commonwealth of Australia.

5. On New Zealand's Roberts Island, rabbit farmers arranged a highly successful fox eradication campaign in the 1920s. To their chagrin, however, this caused the island's rat population to explode, creating a major public health hazard. This led to the large-scale abandonment of, as it is now often called, "Ratters Island."

6. In 1926, Gertrude Ederle became the first person to swim from Australia to New Zealand, a feat that took her almost 36 hours. The current record is just under 28 hours. Because of prevailing currents, no one has ever successfully made the swim in the opposite direction.

7. Because of it mainly produced necessities like food and wool and did not have complex financial markets, Australia was one of the few countries to prosper during the Great Depression. While unemployment spiked elsewhere, Australia desperately recruited immigrants to ease its constant labor shortages.

8. New Zealand was sympathetic to the ambitions of Japan, a fellow island nation, and tried to remain neutral during World War II. Only when the United States and Australia threatened military occupation did New Zealand finally join the Allies, in 1943.

9. During the 1950s, Australia and New Zealand took steps towards unification as a single country. Although the plan broke down over arguments about where to place the capital, the two countries shared both a single Prime Minister (Howard Abelman) and a single supreme court from 1954 to 1956.

10. Australia pursued a "White Australia Policy," almost completely barring immigration by non-Europeans, until 1973.

11. New Zealand banned nuclear weapons and nuclear-powered ships from its territorial waters in 1984. The United States cancelled its military alliance with New Zealand as a result of this decision, but the ban has remained in place to the current day.

12. Both Australia and New Zealand are constitutionally separate from the United Kingdom -- but the British monarch is still technically the sovereign of both countries.

Submit your answers in the comments.

Monday, June 22, 2009

The Great Movies: "The Third Man"

The Third Man
Carol Reed, 1949

The Third Man is a crisp, smart, darkly funny movie that ranks highly among the black and white movies on the Great Movies list or any list, really. Filmed on location in the rubble of postwar Vienna, it is a moral drama about the loyalty owed to friends, lovers, and society in general, and about what happens when those loyalties contradict each other. Unlike the vast majority of movies that pose these kinds of questions, The Third Man does not offer its characters any easy answers. As in real life, they have to continuously decide where their loyalties lie.

The lead character of the movie is courageous, persistent, and well-intentioned; also reckless, naive, and a bit dim. He wades boldly into dangerous situations and is soon in way over his head, but persists doggedly despite not knowing a lick of the local language. Much of the dialog is in German, which is left unsubtitled. This constant stream of foreign language helps underscore the protagonist’s disorientation, as does the camera's weaving trips through the twisting, half-ruined allies of Vienna. The movie's climax takes disorientation to its extreme, pitting characters in a chase through the dark, maze-like sewers underneath the city. It is rare for the central figure in a drama to be portrayed as hapless, and rare too that we are made to share some of a character's sense of confusion. I found The Third Man refreshing on both scores.

Plot: An American man arrives in Vienna, to find that the friend who had "a job" for him has died in a car accident. Learning that witnesses to the accident have contradictory stories and that the police were investigating his friend for some kind of unspecified racket, he decides that he will look into the situation in order to clear his friend's name. He enlists the friend's lover to be his interpreter and, in a magnificent feat of acting, she manages to keep a straight face through his increasingly spectacular displays of naïveté. There are some genuinely surprising revelations along the way, and when we finally cut to the superbly filmed chase, we've had enough of mystery and intrigue and have earned our visceral thrills.

Visuals: Two things stand out here. First, the use of a bombed-out city as the movie's set, which is both a bit crass and visually perfect. The action takes place around, and sometimes literally careens among, a Viennese population still completely freaked out by the devastation of the war and the heaps of rubble still heaped on every block.

Secondly, the film is uniquely lit in extreme contrast of dark and shadow. This creates a number of memorable images. There are several instances where shadow is used ingeniously to create suspense, sometimes ending in surprise, sometimes (as in a famous scene involving a balloon vender) in a clever anticlimax.

Dialog: The dialog of The Third Man is unusually realistic for a film of this era. People interrupt each other and talk over the top of each other and say things that nobody pays any attention to. Remarkably, people trying to speak a language they don't know very well speak in a plausible fashion. (Usually, books and movies make mincemeat out of this, having characters effortlessly speaking complex English sentences but then reverting back to say things like "ja," "nein," "herr," "schoen," and "schlecht," which are literally the very last concepts you would ever have trouble with in a second language.)

Prognosis: The Third Man is a great movie! It's thoughtful and entertaining, and I'm recommending it to anyone who doesn't actively dislike B&W.

It would make a great companion piece with Judgment at Nuremburg, another movie set in the immediate aftermath of WWII. Judgment at Nuremburg didn't make the Great Movies list, but probably should have; I'll file a concurring opinion with Chance's review, here.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

The Monday Quiz LXXVIII

Name That Theme!






Submit your answers, and the theme, in the comments.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Recent Aquisitions...

...in the michael and Mrs.5000 Book Arts (and Bookarts-Related) Collection.

This first one is quite an extravagance for us, a one-of-a kind item. It is a small and intricate collage piece by Linda Welch, an artist from here in the City of Roses. We bought it at 23Sandy, the Eastside Gallery that specializes in book arts and bookish arts, as well as photography. Here's more of the work that Ms. Welch had up at her 23Sandy show earlier this year.

Collage, oil on panel
5” x 4” x 1.75”

Also new in the collection is Mare and Foal, this print by Honorable Vice Dork Emeritus fingerstothebone, working under the name she uses in her artistic career, "Shu-ju Wang."

Mare and Foal is a print, and I bet that if you asked her real nicely, fingers would sell you one. In fact, here is the venue from which she is selling them! Tell her michael5000 sent you, and you'll get double the usual number of Green Stamps.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

The Thursday Quiz LXXXVII

The Thursday Quiz!

The Thursday Quiz is a twelve item is-it-or-isn't-it test of your knowledge, reasoning, stamina, and moxie!

Remember always the Fundamental Rules of the Thursday Quiz:

1. The Thursday Quiz is a POP quiz. No research, Googling, Wikiing, or use of reference books. Violators will never be able to look at themselves in the mirror again.

2. Don't get all stressed out about it! It's supposed to be fun!

Movies of Steven Spielberg

Life magazine dubbed him "the most influential person of his generation," so love him or hate him, you've probably been influenced by him. For which of the following movies was Mr. Spielberg the director? And for which was he not?

1. Aliens

2. Black Hawk Down

3. Close Encounters of the Third Kind

4. Empire of the Sun

5. Jaws

6. Munich

7. Schindler's List

8. Splash

9. Stand By Me

10. Terminator

11. The Color Purple

12. Twilight Zone: The Movie

Submit your answers in the comments.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Third Annual Garden Edition

Way, way back in the third post of this blog, I talked about planting a Draconculus Vulgaris plant on the Castle5000 grounds.
"On a mature inflorescence, the smell is reminiscent of rotting meat, designed to attract flies for pollination. The smell only usually lasts for a day but it is still not advisable to plant it right by your house." Oh hell yeah! (and yes, I am TOTALLY planting it right by my house.)

Then, it seemed to die right away. Last year, it popped back up, but then disappeared shortly after I celebrated its rebirth in a post.

But this year... whoa Nelly!

And.... Yes! It smells a little bit like rotting meat! Too cool. You do have to get your snout right in there, but once you do it's distinctly digusting! I'm very pleased.

We've expanded the garden area into the shade under our big trees this year, creating two new "mountains." Here's Mt. Caliban:

And here's Mt. Yoyo:

And in answer to the Frequently Asked Questions: No, he isn't, and No, she isn't.

And then, things went well this year in the papavar department:

In fact, things are looking pretty good in general. We've even spent a few hours not working in, but merely enjoying the garden. That might be a first.

Monday, June 15, 2009

The Great Movies: "Un Chien Andalou" / "Swing Time"

Un Chien Andalou
Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí, 1929

This short film is a work of surrealism, and is drenched with what you might consider the bracing revolutionary spirit of that movement, or perhaps just its self-importance and smart-alecky attitude. It is first and foremost an attack on the logic of continuity in film, and secondarily a playful assault on narrative in general.

In a conventional film, various shots are shown sequentially, one after another, and as viewers we do the work of weaving them together into a coherent story. In Un Chien Andalou, there is no inherent connection between scenes, and the point of the exercise – the point of the joke, perhaps – is that our brains keep up the fight, trying to create a logical narrative when there isn’t really one there to be found.

For better or worse, this experiment is steeped with Bunuel’s and Dali’s contempt for lowbrow tastes. Un Chien Andalou comes packed with visuals intended to shock and provoke – to freak out the squares, as it were. In the 17 minute stream of images you get, among other things, a severed hand, a man dressed as a nun, ants pouring out of an open wound, a sexual assault of sorts, and a man dragging two pianos across a room, each piano with a dead mule sprawled over it and a priest in a noose dragging below. Oh, and the famous razor-and-eyeball scene. Take that, squares!

The parade of images is occasionally intercut with mock-conventional title cards that say things like “Once Upon a Time,” “Seven Years Later” or “At 3 o’clock.” These are completely arbitrary, as is the very title of this wholly dog-free film. The implication is again that titles, title cards, and all of the other devices used to impose order on images are equally arbitrary in other films as well.

Plot: None.

Images: Trippy, random, and in several instances pretty memorable.

Dialog: None.

Prognosis: Like a lot of radical theoretical insights, the ideas that Bunuel and Dali are flogging in Un Chien Andalou are both true and not true. Sure, cinematic conventions are indeed artifices, and we can thank them for having pointed this out to us in a vivid and interesting way. Such conventions are not really arbitrary in any meaningful sense, however, but are more or less carefully crafted by the directors and the vast armies of actors, artisans, and technicians that work on feature films.

If this kind of theoretical dichotomy strikes you as interesting, than Un Chien Andalou is a film for you! It’s also an important stop on the History of Film Grand Tour, having served as a touchstone for later directors who wanted to use film techniques to mess with the logic of conventional narrative. Also, it’s kind of trippy and cool. Just turn away for a few seconds when the razor approaches the eyeball, and you’ll be fine.

Swing Time
George Stevens, 1936

Swing Time is an interesting film to watch as a double feature with Un Chien Andalou. It is on one hand the very kind of movie that Bunuel and Dali were implicitly criticizing, an utter artificiality concocted with light, film, and the techniques of cinematography. Yet Swing Time is so much about imagery – in this case, the imagery of dance – and so cheerfully disdainful of plot logic that the two films have more common ground than you might expect. Still, one is big-budget, upbeat, escapist family entertainment and the other is a homemade, provocative, highly theoretical experiment in form, and this makes them significantly different viewing experiences. To put it mildly.

You can be completely indifferent to dance – as indeed I happen to be – but it is hard not to be dazzled by the technical mastery of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. They really are terrific. The rest of the movie exists only to give them excuses to dance, and is a mess of romantic misadventures that in no way represents plausible human behavior.

In the opening sequence, for instance, the leading man’s coworkers successfully conspire to sabotage his wedding by making him insecure about his trouser cuffs. Now, this is just as absurd as anything in Un Chien Andalou. People don’t suddenly decide to sabotage their acquaintance’s marriages, and if they did, they certainly wouldn’t do it by messing with their notions of trouser cuffs, and if they did, it wouldn’t work. It is beyond silly. Yet, through the magic of cinematic craft, our brains are persuaded to accept all of this for long enough to get us through to the next big dance sequence. Bunuel and Dali would be proud. Or appalled. Whatever.

Plot: A lot of stuff happens that makes no sense. Along the way, characters occasionally break into song, which is bad, or into dance, which is great. Among the many, many plot absurdities I could mention, my favorite is that the male lead is a really, really good -- wait for it! -- roulette player. He is able to make as much money as he wants from the game at will. This is of course completely ludicrous -- roulette is a pure game of chance -- but the movie takes it as an unremarkable given and lets him use the casino like a bottomless ATM. It doesn’t get any more absurd than that. Helloooo, Dali!

Images: Did I mention that the dance numbers are impeccable?

Dialog: The dialog consists entirely of comic gags and “plot” exposition, but is delivered with what seems to be good-natured skill. The characters are in on the joke, and the comic bits are funnier for not being taken too seriously.

Prognosis: Silly, but likeable. If you are allergic to dumb romantic comedy, bring a book to read between the dance numbers.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

The Monday Quiz LXXVII

Famous Churches





Deposit 1/10th of your earnings, along with your answers, in the comments.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Road Trip!

So yes, I was sent out to Eastern Oregon on a business trip Friday, and took the opportunity to take a long, meandering drive home on Friday afternoon and Saturday. Since this was all in Oregon, there was unfortunately no opportunity for county collection -- I polished off Oregon in, what, 1993 I think.

But still, there are several roads still I've never been on, so naturally I brought along my atlas of all routes travelled.

I use an orange highlighter to mark routes I've taken before, so the yellowish line on the map is the route I took back home from the Hermiston area as it evolved over the course of yesterday and today. Spring is a great time to see North Central Oregon -- I guess it's a great time to see anyplace -- and I was continually bummed to be without a camera as sweeping vistas of tableland and canyons came into view, along with picturesque old buildings, patches of wildflowers, and the like. I highly recommend the length of Oregon 206 from Pilot Rock to Condon, as well as Oregon 218, for sweeping views of magnificently lovely, open country. With virtually no traffic, they are fun to drive -- and by "fun to drive" I mean like so:

Travel Geek Advisory!

The route, in addition to taking me down some new roads, also brought me to 5 out of the 20 incorporated towns in Oregon I hadn't been to:

  • Helix (very very small [183], a little grim)
  • Athena (very small [1221], but with some village charm)
  • Adams (very very small [297], I pretty much blinked and missed it)
  • Pilot Rock (small [1532], gritty and workmanlike)
  • and Rashneeshpuram -- oops! -- I mean, Antelope (tiny [59] and pretty much dead on the vine).

I stayed in Condon, which is a surprisingly charming and welcoming town of 759. It is a humble but well-kempt and well-preserved place, with a handful of nice shops and the feel of a strong community huddled against the vast empty spaces never more than a few blocks away.

I am also always impressed with the town of Heppner, with its prosperous business district, handsome courthouse, and attractive homes. Despite its proximity to the Blue Mountains, however, I thought that adopting the slogan "Gateway to the Blues" and posting it at all the entraces to town was perhaps not the best choice.

Plausible alternative slogan: "To Live in Heppner is to Trust in Hydrologic Engineering."

Friday, June 12, 2009

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

The Thursday Quiz LXXXVI

The Thursday Quiz!

The Thursday Quiz is a twelve item is-it-or-isn't-it test of your knowledge, reasoning, stamina, and moxie!

Remember always the Fundamental Rules of the Thursday Quiz:

1. The Thursday Quiz is a POP quiz. No research, Googling, Wikiing, or use of reference books. Violators will never be able to look at themselves in the mirror again.

2. Don't get all stressed out about it! It's supposed to be fun!

Sir Winston Churchill!

Twelve statements about the famous Prime Minister of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Which of them are spot on, and which of them are bloody rubbish?

1. While a war correspondent, Churchill was taken prisoner in the Second Boer War. He escaped and walked 300 miles across Africa to freedom, but promptly attached himself to another unit heading for combat.

2. In 1898, Churchill was involved with what is thought of as the "last British cavalry charge" during the Battle of Omdurman, where Sudanese forces who had attempted to opt out of the British Empire were decisively crushed.

3. Before his political career, Churchill was a highly successful novelist; his books were among the best-selling novels in the U.S. throughout the decade of the 1900s.

4. Churchill, as First Lord of the Admiralty, was one of the leading architects of the disastrous Allied invasion of Gallipoli, Turkey, during World War I. After its failure, he had to leave the cabinet.

5. Churchill, a passionate anticommunist, prolonged Britain's involvement in the Russian Civil War and, at the end of World War II, had plans drawn up for a surprise invasion of the Soviet Union.

6. The idea of the aircraft carrier was basically invented by Churchill, who drew a diagram of a "floating airfield" on a napkin during a 1925 meeting and sent it to the Naval department for development.

7. Throughout his political and military career, Churchill continually published books and articles mostly in order to supplement his income, which was never large enough to support his expensive aristocratic lifestyle.

8. Churchill became Prime Minister of Britain on the exact same day that Adolph Hitler became Chancellor of Germany, September 3, 1933.

9. Although he would later become staunchly anti-Nazi, Churchill kept a regular, friendly correspondence with Adolph Hitler and visited him socially twice during the early 1930s until their relationship soured in 1936.

10. In 1936, Churchill's political reputation was damaged by his support for King Edward VIII during the famous Abdication Crisis. It was thought at the time that his political life was probably finished.

11. Churchill's famous line "Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few" referred to the men and women of the Resistance movement in Nazi-controlled France.

12. Immediately after the end of World War II, Churchill lost his post as Prime Minister.

Submit your answers in the comments.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

The Great Movies: "A Woman Under the Influence"

A Woman Under the Influence
John Cassavetes, 1974

This movie is from the early 1970s, a time when it was briefly popular to make films about working class people. Since Cassavetes’ style simulates an unadorned eavesdropping on the lives of its characters (its not unlike Robert Altman’s style, in that way), there is a sense for those of us of a certain age of being plunged into the culture of childhood, complete with the mediocre food, garish décor, boxy vehicles, and children who were allowed to engage in unstructured activity. The past, as it always has been, is a foreign country.

A Woman Under the Influence is about a dysfunctional family, and not in the Wes Anderson/Dannie Darko/Garden State “dysfunction is wryly amusing!” sense either. The woman at the center of the film is profoundly disturbed, desperately scrambling for a grip on normalcy that will keep her from being institutionalized. Her husband is smart, confident, and charismatic, and so it takes longer to realize that he, too, is treading the line between sanity and its absence.

There is an uncompromising realism to this movie, so as in real life the mental illness of the characters (and their mothers, who are almost as messed up as they are) is never funny, always grim. It is given none of the ironic hipster chic of the Anderson school, nor the spooky glamour of madness that we saw in Taxi Driver. Woman Under the Influence is therefore a much more honest and authentic film – and consequently, of course, a less entertaining one.

Plot: A mentally ill couple tries to live a semblance of a normal life. They do pretty well, considering the cards they’ve been dealt. It helps that they are genuinely fond of each other.

Visuals: Stark, unlovely, and highly evocative of a time and a way of life.

Dialog: A well-written script, acted with skill and sensitivity. Good performances in the supporting roles help create an overall impression of verisimilitude. This movie is not filmed in anything like a documentary style, but it still has a documentary feel to it.

Prognosis: Recommended for people interested in the history of independent film, mental health issues, cinematic realism, and what life in the early 1970s felt like.

Monday, June 8, 2009

The Monday Quiz LXXVI

Art of the Eighteenth Century

Once more into the brutal reaches of Art History! As is the custom, you've got seven images this time -- more to work with, and more pretty pictures to look at. (Although, man, the European tradition really took a vacation during the 1700s -- ever noticed that?)

It is freely admitted that this is an almost impossibly difficult quiz.

For full marks, identify the painter (e.g. "Leonardo da Vinci"), or the title and the country ("It's the Mona Lisa, by one of those Italian guys.") Half marks for the right title without the right painter ("The Mona Lisa"). Half marks for the country and genre (It's a portrait by one of those Italian guys").








Paint your answers in the comments.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

If I Seem to Come On Too Strong I Hope That You Will Understand

Today, the Life & Times of Michael5000 turns two, and we're celebrating with the release of a new michael5000 song for your grooving pleasure! Or not, as the case may be.

So. We all have songs that we like despite ourselves. The song that we are discussing right now, for instance -- if you were to tell me that it is sleazy, sexist, and a notorious representative of the very worst species of lite 1970s pop dreck, I would not fight you on it. In fact, I would agree with you. And yet, this does not seem to blot out the affection I feel for it.

"What song?" you ask. Why, I'm talking about the 1978 hit by Dr. Hook that reached #6 on the Billboard charts. Surely you remember "Sharing the Night Together."

Here's the original:

And here's my brand new cover, fresh mixed today using state-of-the-low-budget eight-track technology! [Keep in mind that home recordings are often quieter than commercial music, so you may have to get the volume up to hear it.]

So. Yeah.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

The Reading List: "Don Quixote"

Back in my teaching days, one of my students once turned an analysis of an African novel which seemed to have a singularly spare plot. I was intrigued by this novel in which so little seemed to have happened, and decided to read it myself. This turned out to be too bad for the student, for I soon realized that his entire analysis was based on the first five or six pages.

I was reminded of this incident while reading Don Quixote because everything I knew about this well-known cultural icon turns out to happen in the first 60 pages of the 939 page book. The madness from having read too many chivalric romances, the scruffy horse, the scruffy squire, the bit with the windmills -- all of this happens right off the bat. Indeed, the episode of the windmills is of no particular importance in the novel; it is just one of numerous misadventures that befall our hapless hero, and by no means one of the more remarkable ones. It makes me wonder if its cultural promenance comes from dramatic or cinematic adaptations, or from its suitability for metaphor (tilting at windmills and all that), or just from the collective memories of several generations of people who only read the first few chapters.

What we now regard as the novel Don Quixote is really two books, the original and its sequel. The two are quite different. The original is highly episodic, following the hapless night as he staggers from one adventure to the next. Quixote imposes his delusions on everything he sees. Since he generally responds by unseathing his sword and charging bravely into the teeth of danger, he is a terror to anyone he comes across minding their own business in the fields or along the roads. Since his valor generally exceeds his skill at arms, though, he takes at least as good as he gets. Throughout both books, he regularly gets the crap (and the teeth) beaten out of him. The first book is also notable for long digressions, in the form of long speeches from people that Quixote and Panza meet along the way and of whole novellas, completely unrelated to the main plot, that they discover and read in their entirety.

The sequel was written after the original became something of a Rennaissance best-seller and after the publication of an unauthorized sequel by another writer. It is as quirky and self-referential as any post-modern novel, tracing the adventures of Don Quixote in a world where everyone has read the first book and knows all about Don Quixote. Since everyone is delighted to meet the literary celebrity and wants to play along with his madness, he is further confirmed in his delusions, and the nature of reality gets ever more complex. Meanwhile, Cervantes misses no opportunity to attack the unauthorized sequel or to respond to criticisms of the first book, all within the fictional world of the novel. It is weird and fairly marvelous stuff.

Don Quixote is often held up as the first real novel. Not having much of a grounding in the other literature of the period, I can't evaluate that claim. It is, however, fairly awe-inspiring how much of what it is easy to think of as "modern sophistication" Cervantes packed into books that were published in 1605 and 1615. By imagining the effects of his knight's simple but well-intentioned morality in real-world situations, Cervantes implicitly comments on simplistic rules-based moral codes in general. He continually puts Quixote and Sancho Panza in scenarios where they have different perspectives on what is true, or encounter minor characters who have emerged from a given situation with two different stories of it. His treatment of women is almost unbelievably sympathetic for his age, and in the episode of the shepardess Marcela in Chapter XIV of Book One he all but anticipates feminist deconstruction of traditional courtship behavior.

Still, this is clearly a book from a few centuries back. The first book, in particular, is far more episodic than would be considered acceptable in a standard modern novel. It is also rather more blunt in its exposition; we are never made to infer Don Quixote's madness from his behavior, for instance, because Cervantes tells us right up front that he is mad. There's a running gag in which Sancho Panza is always piling proverbs on top of each other, which is pretty good, but unlike Cervantes a modern novelist probably wouldn't feel the need to point out the joke every few chapters. There is also a layer of cultural difference that is difficult to penetrate, although Edith Grossman's translation (more about which in a future post) does a great job of rendering the Spanish wordplay and social context as transparent as possible through judicious footnoting. Still, throughout the second book there are all manner of people who play practical jokes on Quixote, egging him on in his insanity. I read these portions completely unsure whether I was supposed to be appalled, or thinking the jokes were jolly fun, or if I was supposed to be exactly as unsure as I was. Puzzling.

Plot: A gentleman farmer, having read too many books about chivalric knights, decides that he will become one himself. In acting in the fashion of the heros of that kind of literature, he gets himself and everyone he meets into all manner of trouble.

It is a peculiarity of Don Quixote that it can be read as sheer parodic comedy, but also as the most poignant of tragedies -- that of a good man whose moral code exposes him to defeat, humilation, and obscurity. As for myself, the book is enough of a historical artifact that I neither wept for the brave knight's misfortunes nor laughed out loud at Sancho Panza's antics. But, I found that the book retains its power to move and to amuse, which is not bad at all 404 years on.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

The Thursday Quiz LXXXV

The Thursday Quiz!

The Thursday Quiz is a twelve item is-it-or-isn't-it test of your knowledge, reasoning, stamina, and moxie!

Remember always the Fundamental Rules of the Thursday Quiz:

1. The Thursday Quiz is a POP quiz. No research, Googling, Wikiing, or use of reference books. Violators will never be able to look at themselves in the mirror again.

2. Don't get all stressed out about it! It's supposed to be fun!

Famous Poems III

All of the following poems selected the top hundred most-anthologized poems of all time. I've given you the poet, the title, and the first several lines of the poem. In which ones does everything line up? And, in which ones am I just messin' with you?

1. William Blake, "Piping Down the Valleys Wild," 1789.

GLORY be to God for dappled things—
For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;
Landscape plotted and pieced—fold, fallow, and plough;
And áll trádes, their gear and tackle and trim.

2. Emily Dickinson, "A Narrow Fellow in the Grass," 1865.

A narrow fellow in the grass
Occasionally rides;
You may have met him,--did you not,
His notice sudden is.

The grass divides as with a comb,
A spotted shaft is seen;
And then it closes at your feet
And opens further on.

3. John Donne, "Holy Sonnet XIV," 1618.

BATTER my heart, three person'd God; for, you
As yet but knocke, breathe, shine, and seeke to mend;
That I may rise, and stand, o'erthrow mee,'and bend
Your force, to breake, blowe, burn and make me new.
I, like an usurpt towne, to'another due,
Labour to'admit you, but Oh, to no end,
Reason your viceroy in mee, mee should defend,
But is captiv'd, and proves weake or untrue.

4. Robert Herrick, "Upon Julia's Clothes," 1648.

WHENAS in silks my Julia goes,
Then, then, methinks, how sweetly flows
That liquefaction of her clothes.

Next, when I cast mine eyes and see
That brave vibration each way free ;
O how that glittering taketh me!

5. Gerard Manley Hopkins, "Pied Beauty," 1918.

Break, break, break,
On thy cold gray stones, O sea!
And I would that my tongue could utter
The thoughts that arise in me.

O, well for the fisherman's boy,
That he shouts with his sister at play!
O, well for the sailor lad,
That he sings in his boat on the bay!

6. John Keats, "On First Looking into Chapman's Homer," 1816.

Much have I travell'd in the realms of gold,
And many goodly states and kingdoms seen;
Round many western islands have I been
Which bards in fealty to Apollo hold.
Oft of one wide expanse had I been told
That deep-browed Homer ruled as his demesne;
Yet did I never breathe its pure serene
Till I heard Chapman speak out loud and bold....

7. John Keats, "La Belle Dame Sans Merci," 1819.

TELL me not, Sweet, I am unkind,
That from the nunnery
Of thy chaste breast and quiet mind
To war and arms I fly.

True, a new mistress now I chase,
The first foe in the field;
And with a stronger faith embrace
A sword, a horse, a shield.

8. Richard Lovelace, "To Lucasta, Going to the Wars," 1649.


O WHAT can ail thee, knight-at-arms,
Alone and palely loitering?
The sedge has wither’d from the lake,
And no birds sing.


O what can ail thee, knight-at-arms!
So haggard and so woe-begone?
The squirrel’s granary is full,
And the harvest’s done.

9. Dylan Thomas, "Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night," 1951.

Now as I was young and easy under the apple boughs
About the lilting house and happy as the grass was green,
The night above the dingle starry,
Time let me hail and climb
Golden in the heydays of his eyes,
And honoured among wagons I was prince of the apple towns
And once below a time I lordly had the trees and leaves
Trail with daisies and barley
Down the rivers of the windfall light.

10. Henry Vaughan, "The Retreat," late 1600s.

HAPPY those early days, when I
Shin'd in my Angel-infancy!
Before I understood this place
Appointed for my second race,
Or taught my soul to fancy aught
But a white celestial thought:
When yet I had not walk'd above
A mile or two from my first Love,
And looking back—at that short space—
Could see a glimpse of His bright face....

11. William Wordsworth, "I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud," 1888.

Ten years ago on a cold dark night,
someone was killed 'neath the town hall lights.
There were few at the scene, but they all agreed,
that the slayer who ran looked a lot like me.

She walks these hills, in a long black veil.
She visits my grave, when the night winds wail.
Nobody knows, nobody sees, nobody knows, but me

12. Thomas Wyatt, "They flee from me that sometime did me seek," 1557.

They flee from me that sometime did me seek
With naked foot stalking in my chamber.
I have seen them gentle, tame, and meek,
That now are wild, and do not remember
That sometime they have put themselves in danger
To take bread at my hand; and now they range,
Busily seeking with a continual change.

Submit your answers in the comments. Rhyming couplets optional.

(The first Thursday Quiz on Famous Poems was TQXXI. Missy took the Gold.
The second was TQXLIII. gs49 took the Gold that time.)

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Five Brisk Reviews

Book: Gilead, by Marianne Robinson.
Source: I picked it up because I read somewhere that it was good.
Findings: In the form of a long letter from an older father to his son, Gilead is an incredibly graceful and evocative look into (a) small town life, (b) the mid 20th Century in the United States, (c) American religious life, and (d) the human experience in general. It tells the story of a life of no more than the average level of drama and event, yet is quietly riveting. The spare, elegant writing style reminded me of Housekeeping, a book that I read for the Reading List project last year, yet I managed to be surprised anyway when I realized that two books are by the same writer. Where Housekeeping spoke in very spare language of momentous events in the narrator's biography, Gilead invests great emotional weight in the everyday. It is quite lovely.

Book: Titus Groan, by Mervyn Peake
Source: Karmasartre recommended it after I reviewed Sprawling Fantasy Epics a few months back.
Findings: The first book of the Gormanghast trilogy, Titus Groan is a coming-of-age fantasy novel as Edward Gorey might have written one. The book is populated by grotesque, parodical figures fulfilling their ceremonial roles in a vast, decadent provincial castle. Unlike the many fantasy tales where the point-of-view character is by definition good and his or her enemies evil, Titus Groan treats us to a world where no one really has much to recommend them in the way of moral fiber, and the most intelligent and dynamic member of the cast is also spectacularly self-serving. Written in the 1940s, this book can be read as a critique of both the blandness and blindness of traditional authority and of the limitations and hypocracies of anti-authoritarian movements. Or, it can just be enjoyed as a darkly funny imagined universe, beautifully realized outside of some long descriptive digressions that veer towards the purple. Either way, I'll definitely be back for the second installment.

Game: Purgatory
Source: MyDogIsChelsea told me to buy it so her friend, who designed it, could keep his patent rights or something.
Findings: An attractive, entertaining, and nicely designed trick-taking card game played by two teams of two, Purgatory is similar to Hearts in terms of its gameplay, and likely to appeal to people who like the more common game. The deck has three suits (green, purple, and blue) with numbers 1 - 13, "devil" cards that carry a penalty (a bit like hearts in Hearts), and "angel" cards that work a bit like a permanent trump suit. The most innovative twist in the game is that the three six cards are particularly significant; making a mid-value card more important than high or low cards challenges a player to come up with new trump-taking strategies. Mrs.5000 and I got our butts handed to us on our initial outting with the game, but had fun just the same.

Rock Album: The Thermals, Now We Can See
Source: I would have got to it eventually anyway, but d alerted me to its release.
Findings: The Thermals are The Rose City's other band of brainiacs, less overtly theatrical and bookish than the Decemberists and considerably rougher and more noisy. But listen through the punk-flavored guitar attack, and you'll discover songwriting that is intelligent, clever, and pointed. This new album continues their general direction towards an increasingly spare lo-fi rock minimalism, and teaches us again that just because a guitar power trio is rocking the hell out doesn't mean that they don't have anything interesting to say.

Book: Data Flow: Visualizing Information in Graphic Design
Source: I think I saw this one on bioephemera, maybe?
Findings: Graphical presentation of information is incredibly important to clear thinking. The ubiquity of Microsoft Office products, the graphical capabilities of which are bizarrely rigid and underdeveloped, has been disastrous to information visualization, so I was excited to see a text that could counterbalance the brilliant but idiosyncratic and unsystematic work of Edward Tufte in this field. Sadly, Data Flow is mostly a portfolio of truly awful graphic design that does more to obscure than convey information. With only a few exceptions -- notably, Jessica Hagy's droll hand-drawn graphical cartoons -- the work in this book abuses the capabilities of computer graphics to create images that are garish, busy, opaque, and often obnoxiously smug in their own cleverness. The ghost of the jagged, sloppy wave of early '90s graphic design infuses this work, so much so that I double-checked to make sure that this was really a new book. Depressingly, it is.

Monday, June 1, 2009

The Great Movies: "Written on the Wind"

Written on the Wind
Douglas Sirk, 1956

Written on the Wind is a melodrama about passion, alcohol, sex, scandal, and death in a wealthy Texas oil family, and it was apparently a wildly successful piece of mass-market entertainment on its original release. Snooty intellectual types -- you know what those effete eggheads are like -- criticized it as "pop trash," shallow, lurid, and overwrought. Ebert also says, though, that real sophisticates recognize this film as a work of rare genius:

To appreciate a film like 'Written on the Wind' probably takes more sophistication than to understand one of Ingmar Bergman's masterpieces, because Bergman's themes are visible and underlined, while with Sirk the style conceals the message.... Films like this are both above and below middle-brow taste. If you only see the surface, it's trashy soap opera. If you can see the style, the absurdity, the exaggeration and the satirical humor, it's subversive of all the 1950s dramas that handled such material solemnly.
It's well made, for sure. But really, I thought it was pretty much shallow, lurid, and overwrought. So much for my real sophistication.

The Plot: Spoiled rich playboy type reforms his life with the help of a good woman. Then his doctor tells him he has a low sperm count and he flips out, because apparently they didn't have adoption in the 1950s or something. Then there's a lot of drinkin' and fightin' and at one point a gun goes off, and everyone looks very stern and serious and well-dressed.

The Visuals: Everything seems to be filmed on big-budget soap opera sets, which I guess is part of the exquisite irony of the whole thing. We're told that the great Spanish director Alvomodar is a huge fan of Written on the Wind. In Alvomodar's films, I more or less get the high culture/low culture riffing. Here in Written, though, it just feels like somebody spent too much money on a soap opera.

The Dialog: Fairly plausible colloquial dialog, delivered by a strong cast that includes Lauren Bacall and Rock Hudson. Dorothy Malone shines as the evil rich girl; you can tell she's bad because she sleeps around and likes that bossa nova that the kids are into these days. The best scene in the movie has her joyfully boogying down in her dressing gown while her dad, plodding upstairs to tell her to turn that damn music down, drops dead of a heart attack.

Prognosis: This is by no means a terrible movie, but at the same time I have a hard time thinking whom I would recommend it to.