From Sniglet to Smugwit

Via Norm Geras’ blog, apparently Rich Hall–whom I honestly didn’t know was still alive, much less actually working–has a new series about, um, well, I’m not entirely sure, but seems to be a sitcom about deciding to adopt an Old West ethos in modern day England.

Of course, a lot of us who hear this think, “Yeah, England could use a little rugged individualism about now.” That could be biting satire–hell, it could be set in the U.S.A., much less centered around England and Wales. But apparently, no. Quoth Hall:

We’re at war with Iraq because some bible-thumping, tongue-tied, pretzel-choking f-ckwit of a president actually convinced enough people he was some kind of Gary Cooper hero come to bring justice against evil folks.

Well, we’re not really at war with Iraq any more, and haven’t been for a long time. And not to point out the obvious, but, y’know, he actually did bring justice against some evil folks.

He’s no Gary Cooper, alas, though sometimes he reminds me of the recalcitrant Mr. Deeds. More often, he’s Marhsal Will Kane.

Rich Hall’s celebrity, at least in America, is almost entirely centered around the “sniglet”, defined as “words that aren’t in the dictionary, but which should be”. This was a mildly amusing concept that took hold enough in the ‘80s for Hall to slap his name on a bunch of books which, it must be confessed, were composed largely of contributions sent to him. (I’m pretty sure that’s the case, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Just pointin’ it out.)

But, hey, editing a book like that’s gotta be nearly as hard as flying a jet or running the nation.

Stan Winston: RIP

Special Effects pioneer Stan Winston faded to black on Sunday at the age of 62.

Along with Rick Baker, he basically defined the pre-CGI makeup/small-scale SFX era of the ‘80s and ’90s.

If you saw either of these guys’ names on a movie, there was going to be something interesting to look at. Highlights of Stan’s career included the startling gore in the little known Dead & Buried (Jack Albertson’s last film?), the disturbing ghost-rape movie The Entity and the unforgettable SFX bonanzas The Thing and Aliens.

His little horror flick Pumpkinhead is under-rated.

He looked a bit older than 62 which bodes ill for those of us who do seem prematurely aged.

RIP, buddy, or at least come back as a convincing zombie.

Troop Gets His Blog On

Trooper York has started his blog up again.

He’s got a distinctive voice and blogging locale: A women’s clothing store in Brooklyn. You know there’s gonna be good stuff going; he’s local color defined. He’s the kind of guy who can make me think life in NYC might be fun in the right neighborhood. (And while, yeah, I’m in L.A., remember that this area of L.A. was nearly rural–horses and orange groves–when I grew up here, and my inclination is to move further out as development moves in to urbanize.)

Anyway, pop on over and help him get into a groove!

Wii Boy

The Boy is diabetic. The doctors insist, but have no tests to prove, that it’s type I. We think he’s type II, because he’s had the symptoms all his life. (Nobody ever connected the symptoms to Diabetes until he nearly went into a coma but he had them as an infant, even.)

In the weeks prior to setting out the Wii Fit board, he was having trouble controlling his blood sugar. It was consistently hitting the 200s (when normal is in the 70-150 range).

A few days of doing the Wii Fit and it dropped down below 70. He’s had to lower his insulin. The only problem I see is that it won’t last. The games are fun–and he’s highly competitive–but he’ll lose interest once he’s mastered them.

We have a pool coming, too–the Boy loves to swim–and with luck he’ll stay engaged with a physical activity and be able to get off the insulin altogether.

Art: Liberal and Conservative

A post at Althouse has spurred a discussion over liberal vs. conservative art.

Art, of course, is neither liberal nor conservative, though it can be used to convey a message that may be politically defined. The more direct that message is, generally the more art used to convey it suffers. Even a master propagandist, like Leni Reifenstahl or Michael Moore, is subject to violating the reality of the viewers.

Reifenstahl got away with it because of the limited information popularly known about what the Nazis were up to. Similarly, Moore could portray Iraq as a kite-flying paradise in one movie and get away with it since most of have never been to Iraq, but he had a harder time selling the worker’s paradise of “universal state-provided health care” because too many people live in countries that actually have universal state-provided health care. Or, in the case of the USA, have been to the DMV.

But the more you have to alter or cherry-pick your reality, the more your art will suffer, which is why conservatives often reject Hollywood TV shows and movies as laughable, and why the slew of Iraq-based Evil America movies that have been released in the last couple years have been so disastrous.

Here’s a quote:

Trevor Jackson mentions success.

In the ‘60s, facing increasing competition from television, movie box office receipts dropped. Big spectacles were risky, and so movies were increasingly made on low budgets and were what you might today call “vanity projects”.

Lotsa film critics adore this period.

The beginning of the end came in 1975 with Jaws, with 1977’s Star Wars being the nail in the coffin. “Waitaminute!” studio execs cried, “We can make movies that people will actually go see? And more than once?”

And movies were ever thus changed–some film critics maintain that they were ruined.

Success-wise, “conservative” beats the tar out of “liberal” at the box office.

Even Trevor mentions Rocky, Rambo, Red Dawn, and other big hits. IMDB’s all time USA Box Office list is not scaled for inflation, so it’s deceptively weighted toward modern movies, but you won’t find much in the way of moral ambiguity in the top 100. (Itself an interesting discussion: What are the morally ambiguous films on that list? Chicago at 130, I haven’t seen, but from what I’ve heard is murky.)

While liberals apparently believe in the ideal human, they don’t like movies about them, unless they’re actively doing liberal stuff. If they’re confronting evil in a non-approved way, the narrative is “simplistic”.

I should add that I, personally, find that period of cinema (late ’50s to late ’70s) unwatchable along a bell curve. Ugly to look at, ugly music, ugly themes and ugly characters.

At least the Expressionist knew art design and pioneered film technique.

Trevor clarified to mean that “success” was an accurate reflection of the truth. I figured he didn’t mean, you know, actual success. No, seriously, there is a difference between artistic and popular success, with the greatest artists knowing how to back off the artistic just enough to reach the popular.

But what Trevor says about truth isn’t much different from what I’m saying. I added:

By your own definition, then, the only art that could be successful is art that agrees with you.

Do you see that? You judge “success” by accuracy of reflection of truth (as do I, in one sense, though I’m willing to ignore a whole lot of liberal distortions if the technique is good), but we’re talking about truth as you see it.

Worse, in many cases, if not yours specifically, we’re talking about “truth” as one has been indoctrinated to believe in, not what one has observed. Hence, “Crazy stripper makes wild accusation” becomes “Four rich white men rape poor black woman.”

The problem being that if you have a narrative in life–any narrative at all–you’re no longer observing what’s actually there. As a result, however good your technique is, your output suffers to the extent that your audience is able to observe the real truth.

For example, if you make a movie about Che Guevara, you leave out his unfortunate tendency to mass murder and his general incompetence. The Motorcycle Diaries is a better movie than The Lost City, but only if you don’t know (or just accept as a fairy tale) the real history of Che. The need to omit data that doesn’t conform is so severe that Soderbergh’s 4 ½ hour Che movie allegedly skips around those little details.

Compare with Lean’s Gandhi, itself overlong and omitting data. Is it okay to leave out Gandhi’s flaws but not Che’s? I would probably say yes, since Gandhi’s flaws were secondary to what he accomplished, where Che’s flaws–that unfortunate incompetence and tendency toward mass murder–were, in fact, a big part of what he accomplished.

Trevor Jackson’s basic thesis is here:

My contention is that it’s easier to create complex characters if you have a view of people that seems to be shared by those who support liberal policies.

The hilarity of this should be apparent to anyone who has heard the left completely demonize–without nuance or subtlety–the Bush administration of the past eight years. Bush and Cheney and Rove aren’t just wrong, they’re the embodiment of evil. I disagree with the administration on almost everything, but I think they’re good people. (Indeed, I think that’s part of the problem: They feel compelled to do something about things that should be left alone.)

Anyway, there’s a (not accidental) confusion of terminologies at work, with modern leftists hijacking the word “liberal” and “conservative” being a mushy amalgam of often contradictory values.

If you’re classically liberal, you have to believe that Man is inherently capable of good, of responsible self-governance, and of better self-governance than an elite body (be it king or oligarchy). We’re all (mostly) pretty well indoctrinated not to believe that any more.

Distinct from the classically liberal, modern left-wingers operate on the notion that Man is selfish, and that the only good, responsible folks are those who agree with left-wing policies. This amounts to a polar opposite of the above. And it requires one to ignore a great deal of available evidence. Also it causes them to create ridiculous caricatures of their political opponents as should be obvious watching any number of movies and TV shows.

This category includes environmentalists, collectivists, and some “New Age” groups, and a not insignificant portion of Hollywood.

Modern conservatives can fall into the previously mentioned “classical liberal” philosophy. This means that they have a fairly nuanced view of Man as both good and flawed. Most great narrative art probably falls into this category, from Shakespeare to Dickens to, say, JK Rowling. But it requires the recognition of evil, else you have no Iago, no Bill Sikes, no Valdemort.

The difference between the flawed and the evil usually being that the evil attempt to exploit the flawed to destroy them. But the distinction is usually clear: Scrooge, for all his faults, is no Sikes. (I’ve never met a Valdemort, but I have met Iago, who may be the most real portrayal of evil in literature.)

This is because it’s observably true that people are flawed, some are much less so than others, and some are (for all intents and purposes) evil. Therefore, if you’re writing about what you’ve observed and not trying to tie it to some particular policy notion, it’s probably not going to violate classical liberal notions. (This distinguishes, say, a Capra from a modern hack trying to influence policy: As evil as Potter was, there was always a Bailey there to act as a foil.)

Of course, some other conservatives are in the “don’t care” category: Man may be good or do good or be evil or do evil, but as long as the rules are clear and strictly enforced, it’s nobody’s business. But it’s hard to imagine this type being narrative-based artists. Ayn Rand, maybe?

Then there’s the dreaded Religious Right (or some hardcore section thereof), who are currently Republicans, but not really conservative. They share many of the characteristics of left-wingers: They believe that Man is only redeemed by adherence to their particular philosophy, and they tend to caricature their opponents as wanting to wreak havoc on the world.

But, as The Passion of the Christ shows, even a highly religious movie doesn’t have to be preachy.

In my observation, politics and even personal flaws (of the artist) has little to do with the art itself, and when those things do creep in, they tend to taint and detract from the final output. (If you can sit through it, Ed Wood’s Glen or Glenda? is basically a core dump of his aberrations.) Charlie Wilson’s War, for example, completely omits any mention of Reagan, to the point where it’s a little weird. The Constant Gardener is an incomprehensible mess where the message of “Big Pharm is bad” completely destroys what might have been a good movie. Even my beloved Cinematic Titanic’s The Oozing Skull suffers from a pointless and unimaginative “Bush is stupid” joke. (Actually, the same is true of the MST3K movie: The weakest part is a reference to John Sununu.)

But the great artist, in composing his work, is not Democrat or Republican or Socialist or Communist or Libertarian, but a pure and watchful eye, a master of technique, a communer with the audience, and in the moment of creation, empty of himself.

Harder Day on the Planet

In Loudon Wainwright’s song Hard Day on the Planet, he ends his litany of planetary problems with ways in which he is well off:

I got clothes on my back
And shoes on my feet
A roof over my head
And something to eat

My kids are all healthy
And my folks are alive
You know, it’s amazing, but sometimes
I think I’ll survive

I first heard the song in early ‘90s–it seems to have been written about the time Bush threw up on the Japanese Prime Minsiter (the dollar went down/and the President’s sick), when Wainwright was about 45. Over the years, I’ve heard him play it:

My kids are all healthy
And my mom’s still alive

And the latest time I’ve heard it:

My kids are all healthy
And Bob Hope’s still alive

(Haven’t heard it recently, obviously.) I’ve been listening to LW3’s music so long that I’m finally starting to catch up with it.

Why I Don’t Bother With Slashdot Much Anymore

Stuff like this. (Via Insty.)

Even when Slashdot was dominated by highly technical people, the level of discourse–unless it was hardcore geeky–wasn’t necessarily very high at all. It’s worse now.

The global warming conversations should be enshrined for future generations as examples of how smart people can justify believing whatever they need to (as if doctoral theses weren’t enough example).

Interestingly enough, all the top level comments are left-wing. Someone commented once that the lack of apparent dissent regarding leftist ideals had to do more with “not wanting to argue” and “worrying about retribution” than actual agreement.

Meanwhile, solar scientists worry about a (potential) impending ice age.

Wii Fits, or “Hey, you, fat, ugly American, eat some rice once in a while.”

Back in the Atari 800 days–prior to the smash hit console 2600–there was a game called “Star Raiders”. It was essentially a real-time version of the old “Star Trek” game invented back in the ‘60s, and it pitted you (in first person view) against some blocky “Zylon” warriors. What was interesting was that when people played it, they tended to lean left or lean right along with jiggling the joystick the way they wanted to move.

It was, in its own way, a uniquely immersive game.

I never owned an Atari 800; we went with Apple ][s. In fact, the last time I owned a console, it was a Channel F. I lost a lot of interest in owning gaming consoles when I found I could make my own games. Also, computer gaming, while it converges with console gaming in many respects, mostly appeals to me in the areas where the two are disparate. (Adventure and strategy games and quirky little classics like Nethack.)

Generally, when I pick up a console controller (I gifted The Boy with an N64 and PS2 over the years), I find it foreign. Lots of buttons. And for a lot of games, if you want to be good at them, you’re mastering some arbitrary set of control sequences. But the Wii appealed to me instantly.

Now, I’m really what’s known as a “hardcore gamer”, even though I don’t have much time these days to play. I’ve got over 300 games, easily, mostly acquired in last 15 years, but with a few from going back to the early ’80s. Except for sports simulations, of which I own very few, you can find just about every major game made in the past decade on my shelves. I’ve even played some of them!

Despite all this, the Wii appealed to me instantly. Even though the games are trivial, it’s a million times more fun to mimic all the goofy activities than just smashing buttons. (And there are some wonderfully goofy activities in, say, Wario Smooth Moves.) Also, it drives a lot of the hardcore gamers completely nuts to have this device–this non-gamer’s device!–absolutely crush the XBox 360 and PS3. (That produces a special smile for someone who’s had to listen to the “Are computer games dying?” nonsense for the past 20 years.)

So, we acquired a Wii Fit a few weeks ago and finally had the chance to put it out yesterday and give it a try.

Fun. Guaranteed to drive the poor hardcore console folk nuts. “It’s a gimmick!” they cry. “People will buy it and forget about it!” “You should go outside to be active!” The last being particularly amusing coming from someone who probably hasn’t seen the sun since it actually was heating up the earth untowardly.

However, this simple device plays on the same simple premise that the wiimote exploits: Mimicking the action of what you’re doing is far more entertaining than button mashing. As such, simple games like “Hula Hoop”, “Ski Jump”, hell, “Running” becomes entertaining.

And unlike the wiimote, some pretty demanding requirements are made. As friendly as Wii Sports and other early games were, Wii Fit does not hesitate in calling you fat, clumsy and, probably, funny looking.

It’s a little shocking to have a game call you “obese” or even “overweight”. It’s using the highly flawed BMI standard, of course, but I imagine more than a few folks walking (or not walking) around with a few more pounds than they’d like to admit were offended by the news. (If you’re actually in shape, you’re unlikely to care what the machine says.)

If you fail its balance test, it asks if you fall down a lot while walking.

It gives you a “Wii Fitness Age”, probably much older than you actually are.

Now, if you’re familiar with the Nintendo DS “Brain Age” product–or just think about it for a moment–you’ll realize that the first time through (or first several times), you’re learning how to make the board respond. This tends to give you a nice apparent improvement spike at the front.

I didn’t really “get” the balance test, so I tested at 55 one day and 35 the next. I’m not even sure why I did so much better on day 2. I actually gained 3 pounds according to the scale (though some of that might have been clothes and time of day). Eventually, though, it all settles down and becomes a reasonably interesting and amusing metric.

You do have to put up with your Wii looking all fat and sweaty, though, especially if you are fat sweaty.

I’ve heard some parents worry about the Wii’s effect on their kids’ self-esteem. My kids (all in the “normal” range) just looked at the machine like it was crazy when it said something stupid. But they had fun playing the games–even The Boy, who has a hardcore gamer’s disdain for the Wii in general.

When he got on the board, he pretty much killed in every event. Apparently his balance is near perfect. Who knew? He even worked up a sweat. He did maintain that he preferred to make a jackass out of himself in private. Yeah, one does look as though one is having fits during some of the activities. Heh. It’s good to lighten up.

Anyway, to my mind, the board underscores how much there is still to be done with the whole concept of getting gamers up. For example, on a tightrope game, I couldn’t help but be struck by the similarity to the old Crazy Climber game which, itself, was kind of a blast because of the way the controls mimicked the hand movements of the climber.

Tell me that wouldn’t be awesome to act out.

Hell, a lot of classic games would be more fun. Say, Pacman! The running game in Wii Fit has you stick the wiimote in your pocket and not even use the board. Running around a maze, eating pellets, alternately running from and chasing ghosts: That’d have to be more fun. And it’d doubtless change the PacMan championships. The tightrope game also had a kind of Mario feel. I never played Mario, but I would if I could be Mario.

By the way, that’s why I don’t do many sports games or Tomb Raider. Watching a bunch of characters (even animated characters) run around makes me want to do the same. (We’ve always wanted to put a Lara Croft-style obstacle course in the back yard.) I’d rather play football, however badly, then watch it. (I also don’t watch much TV sports for similar reasons.)

So, keep it coming, I say. Nintendo–at least partly responsible for turning the world into couch potatoes in the first place–could turn us all away from the couch potato lifestyle.

Dude, You’re Getting Old

An EW writer (Chris Nashawaty) is bitching that superheroes ruined the summer blockbuster.

What an idiot! Star Wars simultaneously created and ruined the summer blockbuster.

No, the reason we have so many comic book movies is that the two Marvel properties that kickstarted the modern trend (Spiderman and X-Men) were helmed by two of our more talented directors (Sam Raimi and Bryan Singer) and both of them topped their original movies with even better sequels. We’ve got another talented guy (Chris Nolan) rebooting the Batman franchise, and while Singer’s work on the Superman movie was not a box-office smash, it was not, say, an embarrassment.

That is, after all, what has killed superhero movies in the past. It ain’t easy making someone who wears his underwear outside his pants look cool. Comic book art doesn’t translate easily into the real world, and even a lot of the CGI used to make it work in modern movies is dodgy at best.

But people like them, so we get more. I think the new Hulk movie is going to work better than Ang Lee’s both because the CGI–virtually unwatchable in the first–is better and more importantly, it looks like they’re going back to The Hulk’s TV roots. (You may have not noticed this, but The Hulk and Kung Fu were the exact same series. It’s a popular formula.)

Anyway, I’ve digressed, but the author has made the classic error of selection bias. He compares 2006 to 1998 and singles out for celebration in 1998 Out of Sight, The Truman Show, Saving Private Ryan and–I’m not making this up–Armageddon.

Now, I had totally forgotten Out of Sight. Don’t think I saw it. I love Peter Weir, but The Truman Show featured a still-too-rubbery-for-serious-acting Jim Carrey. Saving Private Ryan, while loud and explosion-y, isn’t a summer blockbuster in the truest sense. A summer blockbuster is supposed to be fluff and fun, and the opening 20 minutes of SPR rule it out.

So. That gives us Armageddon as this guy’s go-to for a good summer blockbuster. OK, I’ll give him that one. But on what basis were the characters in that movie not, in fact, comic book? Good lord, I was–unaware at that time of Michael Bay’s oeuvre, actually–sitting there watching it going, “Wow, this is–what the hell is this? Oh! It’s a comic book!”

Fun movie, but no less offensive to the senses than a superhero movie.

Now 2006 was a great year for movies, really, if not the summer blockbuster. You can find an assortment of films that would match those in 1998. But, yeah, if you hated superheroes, you’d probably prefer 1998 to 2006.

But then, that’s the point, really. The article is called “Superheroes: Why I hate them!” and it should be called “Superheroes: I hate them!” There’s no “why” there. It seems like he’s just pissed because the stupid heroes of his youth–the Skywalkers, perhaps, the Jones, whatever–have been replaced with stupid heroes who admit to being superpowered. (Let’s face it: Jedi Knights are superheros, and Indiana Jones rode a submarine across the Atlantic, a feat which requires super-powers, particularly if the sub actually dives.) Yeah, and my mom was a big Flash Gordon/Buck Rogers/Buster Crabbe fan. Life goes on.

Dude: You’re getting old. Stop going to see movies that you know you’re not going to like.

Problem solved.