Monday, April 30, 2012

Tigers and Blotches

A couple nights ago, I dreamt I was walking home and saw a tiger sitting on someone's lawn. Everyone seemed to be ignoring it, so I ignored it too until it attacked me, pawing at my arm I'd raised to shield myself. People around me acted like I was being strange for being bothered and it turned out the tiger didn't kill me, he was just being friendly. I suspect this dream was inspired by the tiger footage in The Jungle from last week.

I have no time to write about a movie to-day, I have to get ready for my final kanji test. Unless I take Japanese III, I guess, which I am tempted to do even though I don't need it for the English degree I'm sort of I guess aiming for. I wish I could just work on my comics and not worry about trying to make a more secure future for myself, but then again, by the time I was finishing Venia's Travels I was feeling like I'd never want to make a comic again. The grass is always greener, I guess. Anyway, I'm enjoying going to school, particularly now that school's easier either because I've changed or because school's changed.

To-morrow I'll work on my comic, which I'm excited about. I was colouring on Saturday and I'm trying to use more airbrush. I sort of wanted this comic to look like Jack Cardiff shot it, and I remembered how Cardiff drew on Rembrandt for inspiration so I've been looking at a lot of Rembrandt paintings. And I'm really digging his glowing chiaroscuro, the soft very darks and soft very lights.

His paintings remind me of my favourite type of day, the patchy storm cloud day where you have blotches of shadow everywhere interspersed with blotches of sunlight. And it's interesting to see how well Cardiff did imitate this style--his footage has this same rich waxy quality.

It's that blotchiness--it has something of German expressionist filmmaking, but the shadows aren't as hard. It's a remarkably subtle effect, particularly considering the difficulty of lighting for Technicolour.

Twitter Sonnet #380

Magma stencils show a pink bikini.
Melting aqueducts fall prey to rhythm.
Method eyelash will brush the martini.
Thorny celery brings crickets with him.
Pickled axes grind the last year's apple.
Barefoot pirates stash rolling pins ashore.
Food Wrestler made an illegal grapple.
Patriot candy alternates next door.
Microwaved God hair is dark and too hot.
Exits vanish from the cannon gas lamp.
Toupee mullets are subject to slow rot.
Steps were quietly added to the ramp.
Even larger knives will not cut the soup.
Mesmer ties require an extra loop.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

A Rabbit for Every Hole

You may not be surprised to learn that 1976's X rated Alice in Wonderland is in some ways unfaithful to its source material. In fact, I suspect the makers of this film never read Alice's Adventures in Wonderland or Through the Looking Glass. The movie doesn't even get the title of the book right in the opening credits and misspells Lewis Carroll's name;

And yet it's still closer to the spirit of the books than the Tim Burton movie in that it ridicules convention and hierarchy rather than celebrating both. And it's actually an enjoyable film for the most part.

In his positive review for the film, Roger Ebert gives a lot of credit for the film's success to its star, Kristine DeBell, and he's right. She gives a good performance, uninhibited not just in terms of what she's willing to do sexually. She plays an Alice in her early twenties, a late bloomer who's never even masturbated. Her adventure in Wonderland consists of the people and creatures giving her a crash course on sexuality.

There are some music numbers that, while not exactly Steven Sondheim, aren't bad and DeBell can actually sing. Her solo number at the beginning about a second chance at growing up is particularly good.

Once she's in Wonderland, instead of meeting the mouse and the dodo and the other creatures in the pool of tears, she meets some dancers in spandex and fur and they have a song about imagination that feels like something right out of a kids movie except Alice is wearing only a handkerchief that keeps coming open in the middle while she dances.

Instead of a caucus race to dry off, the dancers lick her dry, which at first Alice resists. One of them asks if it feels bad, she says no, just strange. "Good?" asks one, which Alice considers before conceding, yes, it does. She has a similar conversation with the King of Hearts later and this is the general tone of Alice's sexual education. My favourite was a scene where a stone talks her into masturbating, telling her she must be alone since stones can't talk.

The movie loses its way with the introduction of Tweedledee and Tweedledum, a man and woman in this film who have a pretty mundane, if explicit, 70s glow sex scene. The movie seems to run out of pluck and energy at times and the end of the movie feels a lot sloppier than the beginning as actors frequently change costumes between shots. But I did love the card guard uniforms.

At only just over an hour, the movie's a nice, sexy little bit of fun.

Here's a slightly better shot of a bullfrog I got to-day;

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Is India Warm Enough for You?

1952's The Jungle is not an adaptation of Upton Sinclair's 1906 exposé of the American meat packing industry. It is instead the most extravagant B movie I've ever seen, much of it shot on location in India.

The movie stars a face painted Marie Windsor as an Indian princess called Sita who has been left in charge of the country by her father. Cesar Romero plays Rama, an Indian noble and the princess's companion and protector, and Rod Cameron gets top billing as the white guy actually playing a white guy. He's the only survivor of a hunting expedition that ended in disaster after running afoul of an elephant stampede that seems to be terrorising villages over a period of weeks.

Despite some logical improbabilities, the story does actually hang together well enough, and the tension is effective as the three leads conduct an expedition to track down the elephants and Sita and Rama try to decide whether the white guy is a coward who ran from the danger that took everyone else, including Rama's brother.

I'm guessing the gorgeous interiors are sets reused from an A movie, but the copious, actual footage of Indian villages and jungle are fascinating and beautiful. It reminded me a little of the 1950 version of King Solomon's Mines which featured a lot of location footage in Africa and, like The Jungle, the story occasionally lost focus as we lingered on the impressive location shots. The Jungle also features a lot of animal footage, including a somewhat troubling sequence of a tiger fighting a baby bear.

Perhaps the animal footage one is most likely to remember this film for, though, comes at the end. One of the reasons Sita and Rama have so much trouble believing the white guy's story is that he claims the elephants are running from a stampede of woolly mammoths. And, rather to my surprise, the movie actually delivers on the woolly mammoths.

They're clearly elephants wearing shag carpeting and they're really just sort of ambling about rather than stampeding. The expedition seems to be running from a party of Snuffleupagases but, still, it's a good effort.

The movie doesn't have a happy ending, but I won't spoil it for you except to say it's sort of awesomely silly. It's a bit out of left field. I will say this; it involves a monkey.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Gathering Clouds and Forests

As much as I love Orson Welles, I was surprised by how much I loved his 1948 adaptation of Macbeth. It's no substitute for watching the pure play being performed, but it's a fantastic interpretation of the story. It's like going home after seeing a production and then having a really intense nightmare about it.

Shot with a lot of very dark, expressionistic shadows on studio sets with strange jagged edges, dark against grey painted skies or shockingly white against black background, the whole movie feels like a hazardous, smothering interior. This brilliantly reflects the paranoia of the story, accentuating the madness that goes along with belief in prophecy. When Macbeth accepts the narrow, simple reality crafted by the witches' prophecy, he becomes bound then by a narrow trolley car of fate. Welles uses a low angle shot of himself as Macbeth to show a low, rocky ceiling above him after learning Banquo's son has escaped assassination, thereby maintaining the witches' prophecy that the child will eventually take the throne;

Then comes my fit again: I had else been perfect,
Whole as the marble, founded as the rock,
As broad and general as the casing air:
But now I am cabin'd, cribb'd, confined, bound in
To saucy doubts and fears.

That's the trap of magic, curses, and blessings--if you accept spells can make things perfect, you have to accept they can lead to ruin. That's the nature of Macbeth's Hell.

The instruments of darkness tell us truths,
Win us with honest trifles, to betray's
In deepest consequence.

Welles recorded the movie's audio first and had the actors lip sync to it. The result is a movie that feels more like one of his radio programmes than his other films, particularly in its timing. During the sequence where Duncan is murdered, Welles uses the animal sound effects rather brilliantly as well as his tendency to have actors deliver lines almost before another actor has finished speaking. This particular sequence, an almost ten minute take, is a show all on its own.

Twitter Sonnet #379

Fish bags dive to pocket whiskey metal.
Colonial nutmeg rescinds the shrimp.
Obsession spends decades at pink Mattel.
Doughnut hospitals caged the bear claw chimp.
Leaves mask the speeding lint covered peanut.
Arms pop from the big bearded balloon world.
Telephone cords screw what heroes abut.
Across oceans strange denim jeans are hurled.
Refrigerator boxes discuss stones.
Play-Doh foundation enlivens a home.
Evil Spock's beard tickled mind-melded Bones.
Ent leaders like pizza on styrofoam.
Blackened edges dry the map's framing seas.
Needles are cold in the woods unappeased.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Awaken, and Find the Frogs

On my way home to-day, I suddenly realised I was surrounded by giant frogs. I happened to glance in the direction of the one above and took a picture for some reason even though I thought it was just a frog shaped log. Then it jumped away when I got closer.

I sat there a moment, trying to pick out any other frogs, but stood finally thinking they'd all fled, and my sudden motion startled one nearby so much it screamed as it jumped away (yes, bullfrogs scream).

I stood up and kept walking when I somehow spotted this one from the bridge;

It seems like every year I see either a new animal around here or animals doing something unprecedentedly strange. In the almost twenty years I've lived in this area, I've never seen frogs that big--I don't think. But it occurs to me this may simply be the first time I've realised I was looking at them.

This is my avatar in a giant hourglass at this year's Fantasy Faire in Second Life.

I could've gotten more pictures--this was just the "Shifting Sands" section, the thing encompasses six or seven sims (or maps), each with its own beautifully realised theme. I was up late wandering around, first with my friend Ada, then with Amee. Then a bunch of noise forced me to get up early to-day and, man, I'm feeling it. It's like a big palm pushing my forehead. But in spite of this, I somehow finished pencilling two pages of comic. I've decided I'm going to devote Tuesdays and Thursdays from now on as much as possible to the comic.

Here are some more pictures I've taken lately;

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Give and Take

Is art an inherently isolating thing? People connect over their viewpoints on art, sharing the experience of a particular movie, but I think the fundamental nature of art is something like what Harry Caul experiences in Francis Ford Coppola's 1974 film The Conversation--an examination of human nature that compels the isolation of the voyeur.

Whether or not Coppola meant for his film to be a metaphor for the nature of art, I don't know, but it's not hard to see Caul's compulsion to examine and illuminate humanity without participating as a metaphor for a film director. Caul, played by Gene Hackman, is a freelance surveillance expert, and as the film opens he and two partners are conducting a complicated operation to spy on a man and woman in Union Square in San Francisco. Harry's a man who obsessively keeps to himself, reluctant to divulge any personal information to his partners, one of his partners doesn't even know the city he'd lived in previously to San Francisco until he's informed by one of Caul's colleagues.

Teri Garr appears in the film for one scene as a woman Caul is supporting, paying the rent for her small apartment. She's in love with him even though he tells her nothing about himself, not even his job. She is very much a kept woman. When she leaves him, it's indicated it's probably because she had no reason to think he loved her back. She doesn't realise or accept that the anonymity Harry achieves in their intimacy is an enormous part of what he needs from her.

He's a devout Catholic, like Coppola, and we learn he feels guilty about information he obtained by surveillance that may have led to someone being killed. He's beginning to fear his current assignment may be a similar setup, which is why he obsessively listens to the tape of the couple at Union Square over and over.

In one of my favourite scenes, Harry dreams of seeing the woman from Union Square walking above him on a small hill, through fog, and he asks her questions as he tries to see her, receiving no response. It's like an artist trying to find out about human nature. "To reveal art and conceal the artist is art's aim" as Oscar Wilde said, and we find that in obsessing over the limited information he has, Harry becomes creative with it without meaning to and the movie also becomes about the unavoidable difference between perception and reality.

Harry Caul's one of the best, most interestingly portrayed characters I've seen in a movie. His horror at the idea of being a character in life's drama while simultaneously wishing to gain wisdom about people could be described as an Apollonian addiction. As such, the film functions as a great tragedy, and as a film noir--Harry cannot avoid making decisions that effect reality. And he can never definitively have the answers he will always be compelled to seek--that's an artist.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Just Stuff and Lots of It

I haven't made much of an effort to take good pictures lately. I was at Seaport Village on Saturday and saw two seals caught in the harbour, swimming in circles, but they were too far away for a good picture. I almost got a good picture of a bright red parrot with an aircraft carrier in the background, but the parrot turned its head at the last moment and I didn't feel like trying again.

Maybe it's just that I feel like I'm spinning too many plates. My focus is frustratingly diluted. Maybe it was a mistake to start working on a comic while I'm still taking Japanese, but I've been feeling the itch too much. Not that I've been able to devote a lot of time to it.

I bought a ticket last week for a Morrissey concert the day after my Japanese final. It'll be the first concert I've ever gone to alone, which is sort of exciting. I wonder if I can somehow smuggle a flask in. They're selling alcohol at the event but they don't even let you bring in water bottles. Maybe it's just as well, I wouldn't want to have to get up to pee too much. I have cheap seats, though, so I guess it's not like I'd have to part the human sea every time I needed to get to the restroom. I could wear a diaper like Richard Christie, from The Howard Stern Show, does when he goes to concerts.

I've completely switched from listening to Howard Stern to listening to Nick and Artie. I have a feeling working on a comic is going to be a lot easier with Artie Lange to listen to. There's something so cold and high strung about the Stern Show now. It's not just that he spends so much time talking about America's Got Talent now, it's that he seems so careful. I think I maybe ought to have seen this coming after hearing him talk about meeting Barbra Streisand and really getting along with her.

Barbra Streisand and Mel Gibson head up my list of people I'm disappointed in seeing some of my favourite stars hanging out with. I just read Mel Gibson's in talks to be in the Machete sequel. I don't understand why people even want to talk to him. Am I a hypocrite for being bothered less by the fact that Danny Trejo spent eleven years in prison? Maybe. I actually find myself more willing to forgive armed robbery than Gibson's general douchiness.

Twitter Sonnet #378

Horseshoe rain drips on the suede telescope.
Nude pages show behind the blue cheetah.
Taxi seals circle the bay without soap.
Anticlockwise reprieve came to Hatta.
Suits met cold men for deep fried yak sushi.
High heat cookies crumble atop the sky.
Memory wrecks the rote weather banshee.
Shins can send silver snake message pie.
Purple shirts change the flying season bean.
Bathroom salsa gives the wrong idea.
More money can make a million men lean.
A dame's not an onomatopoeia.
Candy came from the vending machine shade.
Dorito tacos make stomachs say, "Quaid . . ."

Monday, April 23, 2012

Sex Solves Everything

Scotty suffers from a concussion after an explosion caused by a female officer and naturally McCoy worries Scotty may become a misogynist. So naturally Kirk gets Scotty a prostitute and as Mr. Scott walks grinning into the night with the woman, Kirk says, "Mission accomplished." This is a real episode of Star Trek.

It's "Wolf in the Fold", a second season episode that opens with a belly dancer in a vaguely Arabian harem looking tavern where men lay around being fed grapes by women. Maybe they aren't prostitutes--it's never explicitly said. Actually, Scotty just says to Kirk, "Do you mean to tell me that all these women--that all this is--" To which Kirk replies, "Yes, yes. The Argelians think very highly of their pleasure." So maybe they're nymphomaniacs. Anyway, the string of logic from McCoy's diagnosis to prescription for Scotty is just sort of . . . amazing. I mean, even for the 60s. I must confess to giggling.

Another episode written by Robert Bloch, this was actually sort of a sequel to a story he wrote in 1943 called "Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper", which I haven't read, though I have read the other sequel Bloch wrote for it, "Toys for Juliette", which appeared in Harlan Ellison's Dangerous Visions collection, a first edition of which a friend let me borrow in high school. It's been a long time since I read it, but it was more effective than this Star Trek episode. Even so, if you can get past the questionable psychoanalysis followed by the rather baffling investigation into the murders--the prime suspect in three, Scotty is never restrained--there is a somewhat effective spookiness to the story of an eternal spirit of Jack the Ripper. Then this effectiveness is somewhat tranquilised a bit when to combat the entity's desire to terrify the Enterprise crew Kirk has McCoy tranquilise everyone. So the humour in the drugged up Enterprise crew lounging and giggling kind of overrides the Jack the Ripper taking possession of the Enterprise's computers.

This episode did make me smile, though I kind preferred smiling with the show rather than at it in the previous episode, "The Doomsday Machine", which was a nice ship battle episode reminiscent a bit of what makes The Wrath of Khan work so well.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Pretty Hazards

There's a kind of Alice in Wonderland charm to Billy Wilder's 1957 film Love in the Afternoon. Most of the movie is told from the point of view of Audrey Hepburn's character, Ariane, and, despite Hepburn being in her late 20s, the movie's appeal is mainly in a smart, credulous young girl exploring the strange world of adults in Paris. The romance between her and Gary Cooper's character feels inevitably lopsided and creepy, though I don't think it was meant to. Mainly this is a charming film with a perhaps unintentionally sinister undercurrent. Whether it was intentional or not, I think it may actually be one of the movie's strengths.

It's interesting that seven years after making Sunset Boulevard, where a woman falling in love with a man nineteen years younger than her was portrayed as weird and unnatural, Wilder made this film which asks us not to question a man being with a woman more than twenty years younger than him, but I guess that's the double standard. To be fair, older women lose much of what's widely considered appealing about their looks, which is, in a word, youthfulness, but despite the fact that movies use attractive people to get their stories across, it's a mistake, in my opinion, to take that attraction as trumping substance. The usefulness of attractive movie stars is to help pull you into the story, and it's always nice to appreciate beauty. But one should not forget the reality of human relationships which, when healthy, aren't based on superficial details.

But maybe Wilder didn't forget. Ariane's father, a private detective played by Maurice Chevalier, pleads with the famous international playboy Frank Flannagan (Cooper's character) about his daughter; "Give her a chance, Monsieur. She's so helpless. Such a little fish. Throw her back in the water." The detective was well aware of Flannagan's track record with women since, when investigating adultery on the parts of wives, he was used to finding Flannagan as the man aiding and abetting. And by the end of the movie, we never get any real reason to think Flannagan might not grow tired of Ariane as well. The American version of the film has a closing narration that was forced on the film by producers--and Wilder objected to it--that told us of marriage between Frank and Ariane.

We see Chevalier smiling at the train as it carries Ariane and Frank away from him, despite his plea to Frank earlier. Perhaps it's the worldly detective smiling somewhat sadly at the inevitabilities of life he's accustomed to being audience to in his line of work.

Hepburn looks like she's twelve and Cooper looks like he's sixty. It's somewhat hard to believe Ariane manages to actually convince him that she's had as storied a love life as he has. Of course, this is in a long line of movies pairing Hepburn with much older men--there was Humphrey Bogart in her previous collaboration with Wilder, as well as War and Peace with Henry Fonda, and eventually she'd be seen with Fred Astaire, Rex Harrison, and Cary Grant. I think only Astaire surpassed Cooper in terms of an utter void of romantic chemistry with her. She and Grant together weren't bad and, in fact, Cary Grant was Wilder's first choice for Frank Flannagan, but, according to Wikipedia, Wilder said of Grant, "It was a disappointment to me that he never said yes to any picture I offered him. He didn't explain why. He had very strong ideas about what parts he wanted." I could've told Wilder the reason--almost all of Wilder's male characters in romantic comedies are wolves, whether it's the unrequited kind like Jack Lemmon, or the insatiable kind, like Flannagan. I wouldn't be the first to point out that Grant was pretty consistent in choosing roles where either the woman wooed him or she just sort of naturally came to him with little effort on his part, and this was an enormous part of Grant's charm. Wilder wrote wolves, but Grant was a romantic gravity well.

Hepburn's haircut in Love in the Afternoon kind of makes her look like Alice Liddell, the inspiration for Lewis Carroll's Alice, and the movie's fun to watch as she walks across balconies to rescue Flannagan from discovery by a jealous husband, or as she continues having clandestine meetings with Flannagan without ever telling him her name. To her, he's a character in the stories that make up her father's extensive files she constantly breaks into. When she watches him from a balcony during a production of Tristan und Isolde, the music helps emphasise a young girl's robust sense of romance getting her caught in a fantasy. Chevalier's warning gives just a hint of the fall to Earth that must surely occur after the movie ends.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

My New Mug

This my new colour changing Bettie Page mug. And this is Bettie with some of my hot chamomile inside her;

I had to get this thing. I feel like I'm turning into the dad from A Christmas Story.

Bird Enough for Time

Another new bird in town. I'm not exactly sure what it is, but the best bet I've found through Google is a long-billed curlew.

So now in this little area I've seen a long-billed curlew, ducks, several seagulls, ravens, egrets, mudhens, and red-winged blackbirds. I'm hoping a few generations from now I'll be seeing a curguravgrebluckhen.

Twitter Sonnet #377

Balloon wives float in American time.
Quickly traded wheat starts a sappy glow.
Needle orbits whittle the Earth to pine.
Optic triangles shape the spade and hoe.
Cotton scrapes the seaweed from the trashcan.
Protractor knees fade behind the soft pie.
Wire spokes radiate for the toucan.
Kites peer through the cumulonimbus sigh.
Dreams point like Phil Collins' old widow's peak.
Bare scalp slowly creates a shining gulf.
Essays draft drowsy lines for eyes to seek.
Booze and smoky shrouds gave wisdom to Rowlf.
The strawberry of an hour curves cake.
Operations last long as surgeons take.

Friday, April 20, 2012

The Humanity of Evil

It seems rare for truly evil people to be portrayed in movies. A person whose every action is dictated by a desire to create destruction or injury usually just comes off as two dimensional. To create a character who seems human and thoroughly evil is partly difficult for writers, I think, because it requires the writer to create characters with recognisable needs and feelings, someone who started from the same point as all of us, and was motivated by these needs and feelings to choose utterly repugnant paths. It's too imaginable to be imaginable, it's too close to home. One of the few artists who have had the strength to create such a character was Orson Welles, who created such a character for his 1946 film The Stranger. It's a beautifully shot, intelligently written, and fundamentally terrifying film.

Welles plays the man himself, Franz Kindler, a Nazi hiding in Connecticut after World War II under the name Charles Rankin, a prep school professor. Kindler's not just any Nazi, but the mastermind of the concentration camps. Welles uses the character to personify his impression of the Nazi mentality, and it's a terrifically evocative portrayal.

The scene that impressed me the most was a dinner party shortly after Kindler's marriage to Loretta Young's character, Mary. Kindler talks about a fundamental desire for dominance in the German mind, arguing that the Germans will always try to conquer the world, bringing up Siegfried, the perfect, mythic warrior as a reflection of the German ideal. And yet, what makes the scene so interesting is the nervousness with which Kindler talks, the irrepressible discomfort with himself. He's nervous about giving away his identity, but there's more to his anxiety than that. It's like he's trying to raise his spirits in the unavoidable reality of his current situation, where he's desperate and hiding, and he has no ideal, no philosophy has any real meaning for him. It's all about dumb survival now. We get the impression he knows what it's like to serve something bigger than himself and his current lonely situation has left him feeling naked.

Mary presents another element to make this story more troubling than one of a two dimensional villain--her devotion to him helps illuminate his humanity. He tells her he killed her dog to prevent the dog from discovering the man he killed, but he doesn't tell her of his real past or that he killed the man because he was a former comrade who might reveal his identity. He instead tells her a story about how the man was threatening to blackmail him. Still, it's more Kindler's basic humanity we feel Mary's responding to than any story when she sticks with him.

Edward G. Robinson plays Mr. Wilson, a government agent who's tracked Kindler down but has no proof to definitely implicate Rankin. He needs Mary to implicate him, and in order to help convince her he shows her concentration camp footage. The movie uses actual concentration camp footage which is a startling thing to see in a 1940s movie, even one as abnormally shot as an Orson Welles movie. It raises the bar even further on what we and Mary have to assimilate for our impression of the very human Charles Rankin.

According to Wikipedia, Loretta Young once said in an interview that Welles had originally cast Agnes Moorehead as the investigator but the film's producer had her replaced with Edward G. Robinson. Robinson was a much bigger star, but one has to think sexism was also at play here. I like Robinson and he does a good job in movie, but how great it would've been if Moorehead had been in the role. As it is, the setup with Mary's father and brother along with Robinson patiently trying to save her from her misplaced affection for Rankin feels like men handling the Woman Problem. A woman in the role of investigator would've both mitigated this and would've helped emphasise the psychological digestion of Kindler while lessening the possibility of Mary's affection being construed as womanly hysteria. If the producer wanted a star, I found myself thinking of all the female stars who would've been fantastic in the role. I would have absolutely loved Barbara Stanwyck for it.

As it stands, the movie's still a tremendously effective portrait of the worst in human nature.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Point A to Point Eight

These are the bees who took up residence outside my Japanese class. Naturally someone therefore heaped a bunch of poison on them, for which there were warnings posted around the classroom. Just a few days earlier, I'd heard my mother telling a story about a bee hive at her house she'd called someone to get rid of. She'd had him promise her he wouldn't kill the bees. He promised her, and then went and killed the bees anyway.

I stood under the hive at school on Monday and the swarming and upset bees didn't touch me. I was happy to see they were still there on Wednesday, though I guess that just means a slower death.

The area had yellow tape around it like a crime scene. The teacher had to take the long way around because she always has a big steel suitcase on wheels she's carting around. I ran into her a ways away and I walked to class with her, talking to her about the bees. "How do you say 'bee' in Japanese?" I asked.

"Hachi," she said.

"Like 'chopsticks'?" (hashi).

"No, like 'eight'. Hachi."

I wondered if this could possibly be because bees look like little figure eights, though I'm sure they must have been in Japan long before Arabic numerals were introduced.

I got an A on the last test, which I'm really pleased about. That's two As in a row I've gotten, preceded by a C and a D, and she told us she knocks off the lowest scoring test from our final grades. At the beginning of this class, I thought I'd fail the class but learn Japanese. Now I think I'll pass, but I'm frustrated by how little I still know. I still can't watch an episode of an anime series and totally understand it. I certainly couldn't understand Yojimbo, which I watched again a few nights ago, but Kurosawa's jidaigeki, period films, use antiquated dialect. I wondered why I couldn't understand the sheriff whenever he called the time, but my teacher mentioned they used to tell the time differently in Japan, using animal symbols.

I still can't quite read the Sayonara Zetsubou Sensei manga I got. But I'm surprised how helpful it is knowing more kanji. I know the kanji for "think", 思, and I was able to figure from context that 思つ means "ideas". The manga begins with Itoshiki Sensei explaining to his students that the manga is ending because the writer and editors are running out of ideas and energy. That's about all I got so far.

I do know enough to tease a guy in a Second Life chess club I see now and then who wears a "Sensei" tag. My Japanese teacher explained that only a moron calls him or herself "Sensei"--it's a term of respect. People in Japan don't even introduce themselves as "-san", which is basically mister, missus or miss. There's such a fundamental disdain for self-glorification in Japanese culture I find tremendously refreshing.

To-day I've been digging Aimee Mann.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Christmas or Custard

Having been watching fourth Doctor serials the past few months, I finally found myself in the mood to revisit some episodes from the revived series. I watched "The Christmas Invasion" last week, the tenth Doctor's first episode, and "The Eleventh Hour" last night, the eleventh Doctor's first episode. And I must say, despite the fact that the episodes Steven Moffat have written for the eleventh Doctor aren't as good as the ones he wrote for the tenth, "The Eleventh Hour" is a far better introduction for a Doctor than "The Christmas Invasion" and it served to really crystallise for me that the show is indeed a lot better under Moffat's control.

I wouldn't call "The Christmas Invasion" bad. Rose Tyler has a bunch of lines that sound more like ruminations on what Doctor Who means to its fans than a character's reaction to the Doctor's incapacitation, and the antagonists go from one form of campy to another--killer Christmas tree followed by Klingon-ish invasion. But Tennant does give a very engaging performance, the plot is satisfyingly funny, and, aside from the meta stuff with Rose, the characters are decently written.

But "The Eleventh Hour" has so much more. There's more life in its story of the little girl with the crack in her wall and the strange man who shows up to ransack the kitchen before settling on fish fingers and custard. The episode's not perfect--particularly in the Doctor's chest beating at the end, but that's more a symptom of modern western culture's sad preoccupation with self-esteem. That Matt Smith is charming enough that I'm not annoyed by an unarmed man going around taunting alien cultures really says something. But I wish it hadn't ended with the Doctor, as he did in "The Christmas Invasion", proclaiming himself Earth's protector. The Doctor isn't a soldier, he's a broker of peace when it comes to it. He sees conflict as puerile. But maybe that's not something children are expected to appreciate anymore.

Anyway, I'm starting to think the eleventh Doctor is actually my favourite of the new series.

Twitter Sonnet #376

Chaos cheese clenched the shivering apple.
Sarcastic sideways rain dropkicks lightning.
Rubber nostrils subsume the last Snapple.
Sharp squares crash the hall of Carol Channing.
Abnormal tartan girds the strange Triscuit.
The weird clan's curved ceiling darkens cable.
Slaughtered bees twist around the eighth circuit.
Nobody should assume they're not Mabel.
Starving menus forget to eat paper.
Entrees know nothing of the poisoned bee.
The black velvet burrito is dapper.
Beefy sand ends at the sour cream sea.
Sherbet bubble wrap melts in a card cone.
Comb over watermelon danced alone.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Black Ropes and Brick

"Harry's an artist without an art . . . That's something that would make a man very unhappy . . . groping for the right lever, the means with which to express himself." This is how Richard Widmark's character, Harry Fabian, is described at the beginning of 1950's Night and the City. As a supreme example of film noir, Harry and other characters are always presented with choices but they inevitably lead to disappointment and a doom rendered sharper by the guilt attendant upon the choices they made to get there. It's a beautifully shot, anxious film about what happens to people who aren't lucky in socially or culturally acceptable ways.

Harry's an American living in London as is his girlfriend Mary, played by Gene Tierney. They both work for a night club called The Silver Fox where Mary sings while Harry roams the town hustling people into visiting the club. Harry's art might simply be talking--again and again throughout the film, we watch him manipulate people into voluntarily doing exactly what he wants them to do, whether its people going to The Silver Fox or two wrestlers deciding to fight despite having sworn never to fight each other. The only two people Harry can't seem to manipulate are Phil, owner of The Silver Fox, and Kristo, a gangster who controls all wrestling in the city. When Kristo's father, a famous wrestler, is offended by his son's use of modern wrestling gimmicks, Harry sees an opportunity to take over the racket and convinces the old man to work with him.

Of course it all ends in disaster but not before Harry compromises what few morals he has to try to avert it. Shot with gorgeous, expressionistic darkness, the film features a lot of location shooting in London. The film was directed by Jules Dassin, who directed The Naked City a couple years earlier, a Hollywood film unique for its time in being almost totally shot on location in New York City. There's plenty of scenes shot in studio in Night and the City, but the film nonetheless features a remarkable amount of footage of the actors in London, usually Harry running through back alleys or across large, familiar spaces marked by shadow. But Night and the City surpasses The Naked City in character and performances. The only decent performance in The Naked City was given by Barry Fitzgerald, and his character wasn't especially interesting. The people in Night and the City are vivid, sometimes ruthless, but never inhuman.

One of the negative critical reactions cited in Wikipedia says, "there is only one character in it for whom a decent, respectable person can give a hoot." Presumably referring to Mary, who's not actually in the movie very much and is essentially a saint. So often the complaints against "unsympathetic" characters seem to come from people who think people who never do anything they might later be ashamed of are sympathetic characters. One of the great accomplishments of film noir is that it shows just what a wrong, and kind of scary, point of view that is. Such people are either really good at mentally blocking their own transgressions or they're people who have lived lives of such good fortune they've never been forced to make hard choices.

Two people in the film remark on how Harry's brilliant plans and actions are futile because he's effectively a dead man already, and the shadows in the cinematography visually help emphasise this. He's a dead man because of Kristo's gang chasing him, but that's just detail. The fact is, as everyone knew, Harry had no way to go from the beginning. He's a piece that doesn't fit in the city's puzzle and mostly he's the only one who sees any reason for him to exist at all, as he's acutely aware. Eventually his desperate struggle ends, but not before he takes actions in his desperation that lead to him hating himself. He's an imperfect man, brought brilliantly to life and death in this dark, insightful masterpiece of a film.