Blog hiatus – My Father’s Health

As you probably noticed I have not been writing, and I’ve determined that my blog is on de facto hiatus.

My father took seriously ill on a visit to Chicago, so I have been helping my family deal with the many complicated and time-consuming tasks associated with prolonged illness and recovery.

When I come back, I plan to tell my story of the great achievements of modern medicine as well as it’s faults and failures, the essential need for family to supervise and assist in care for loved ones, and the many frustrations and indignations that my family and I suffered at the hands of the health insurance system. The only reason I have refrained from writing is that I am devoting all of my energies to my family, work, and trying to retain some semblance of normalcy in my life.

Thank you to all–family, friends, co-workers, students–for your kind wishes and for keeping my family in your thoughts.

Labor Day

I was doing some (very light) research on Labor day yesterday because I was not really sure what the origins of the holiday were. I knew that it had something to do with organized labor unions, but I was a little off in my assumptions as it had more to do with an appeasement strategy to prevent further nationwide strikes and disruptions in big industry (see the Wikipedia article). The obscurity of history prevents us from learning the origin story of such holidays.

It is the universal right of workers to organize, collectively bargin, and strike, no matter their profession and what a government determines is legal.

In this work environment, which is all too reminiscent of The Grapes of Wrath where employers cheat their workers out of the basic rights of laborers through systematic oppression, we have to remember that we may collectively and righteously employ the tactics of so many ignorant legislators to stop this country and force the government and employers to recognize the power and value of labor.

Finally, to demonstrate that I am a dangerous, leftist radical, here is a Woody Guthrie song about striking workers. Happy Labor Day everyone!

Sending and receiving IIT email through Gmail

Since OTS did not post instructions for adding a new “hawk.iit.edu” email address to Gmail (at least not that I could find), I thought I would post the server names/ports and some instructions for how to do it in case anyone is interested. I’m assuming if you’re reading this that you activated your account in myIIT.

If you are my student, I highly recommend doing this so that you view emails from me in a timely fashion. In addition to posting notices on my course website, I send emails regarding class to your university account, so you will need to check it regularly.

Firstly, you need to sync your Google apps for education password with your myIIT password since they are not the same for some reason. You can do that in the ‘training and support’ tab in myIIT (there is a link to sync the password in the right hand pane).

Next, log into your “hawk.iit.edu” email address. In mail settings under the ‘Forwarding and POP/IMAP’ tab, click on the button to enable POP for all mail.

Log into your personal Gmail account and in mail settings under the ‘Accounts and Import’ tab, click on the button to add a POP3 email account. Here is the server information:

Email address: [your myIIT user name]@hawk.iit.edu

Account Name: full email address
Password: IIT password
Mail (POP3) Server: pop.gmail.com
Port: 995
Use SSL: Yes (check the box to use a SSL connection)

I think it’s a good idea to check the box to apply a label to mail so it’s easier to keep accounts straight, but it’s not required.

To send mail from your IIT email account, follow the instructions that Gmail gives you to verify your account. You can choose to send mail using SMTP through that mail server, or you can just use your personal Gmail account to send mail. The only difference I noticed is that the ‘From’ information in emails you send will look like this:

From: Andrew J. Roback aroback@iit.edu via gmail.com

rather than this:

From: Andrew J. Roback aroback@iit.edu

If that bothers you, here is the outgoing mail server info:

smtp.gmail.com (use authentication)
Use Authentication: Yes
Port for TLS/STARTTLS: 587
Port for SSL: 465

As a final word of warning, OTS said in their email that all mail would be forwarded to your new email address. That was not the case with me, as I received an email to my old address and it was not forwarded. I deleted my old POP3 import settings, then had to set it up again when I saw I was still receiving mail at my “iit.edu” account. I would recommend leaving your old POP3 accounts in place (I plan to, at least for a little while).

Rear Window (1954), Beauty and the Beast (1991)

Rear Window (1954)
Dir. Alfred Hitchcock, 112 min., DVD

rear window movie posterWatching Hitchcock’s films might be considered by some a master class in pacing and suspense, but for my money it’s a dead ringer for the difference in how writers and directors delivered a story now and fifty years ago. There are not many films of comparable pacing that I have watched from the last ten years of cinema that hold so much for the end, except perhaps the works of Christopher Nolan.

The film, by all contemporary standards, proceeds at a glacial pace, and if I take that metaphor to an annoying level, the glacier of pacing is slowly melted away by the heat of action (boo, boo, terrible!!!). Garbage metaphors aside, the heat does figure prominently as noted on a recent episode of Filmspotting, playing a pivotal role in the main action of the film (the peeping of the protagonist into open windows).

Jeffires (James Stewart), an injured photographer who is confined to a wheelchair during his convalescence, is visited accordingly in day and night by his nurse Stella (Thelma Ritter) and romantic interest Lisa (the stunning Grace Kelly). The film works equally well as a thriller and a class study, with Jeffries peering into illicit behavior and peoples’ personal class afflictions in equal measure. Jeffries avoids marriage to Lisa (in what Adam Kempenaar calls the most unbelievable bit of acting ever) on account of her “Fifth Avenue” lifestyle being incongruous with his various rugged, masculine photography assignments. Jeffries early on notices unusual behavior from one of his neighbors which prompts him to bring in his police detective friend Doyle (Wendell Corey), an antagonist for the speculative trio of Jeffries, Stella, and Lisa.

Through twists and turns, the murder is both proven and disproven through vivid imaginary crime reconstructions by the trio (reminiscent of the climax of a Sherlock Holmes novel) and the deflating detective work of Doyle. Perhaps the most arresting theory behind the film is that of surveillance, and what it does or doesn’t tell us about people. Seeing actions disconnected from context and without explanation offers a glimpse of private life that goes beyond suspicion or blind speculation, yet is no more factual or truthful than either. On a meta-level, it comments on the film viewer’s voyeuristic tendencies, the watching of someone who is incapable of watching you. The exquisite tension that lingers with me is the peril of unobserved observation, that the object may turn his gaze on you, shattering the barrier that makes surveillance a passive activity–much like an actor breaking the fourth wall. A brilliant and elemental foundation for a plot.

The slow, slow pacing is alleviated by the masterful set in which the entire action of the film takes place. Apart from a single room in Jeffries’ aparment, the entire setting of the film is the view through the vibrant courtyard and alleyways that provide access for the protagonist and viewer to the unsanctioned glimpses into open windows. It functions as a self-contained universe of intrigue and interaction: a microcosm of a metropolis housing a multitude of sin, intrigue, and suspicious imagination.

A-

Beauty and the Beast (1991)
Dirs. Gary Trousdale & Kirk Wise, 84 min., on the Disney channel (of all places)

I have a certain fascination with films for children, in that they must both entertain the child as well as not be abhorrent to the adult paying for and accompanying said child to the movie theater. In addition, they must be entertaining to children ranging from 3 to 12 years old, a range marked by radically different interests and cognitive levels. If a film rises to the pick of the litter (in 101 Dalmations parlance), it is rewatchable by the adult for nostalgia and enjoyment purposes for many years after the initial viewing, and may be imparted on a subsequent generation.

I was watching the film Tangled with my niece the other day and I noticed that computer animation is a totally different experience from the hand drawn animation of my childhood: the lines are crisp and clean, voices are perfectly matched, scenes are crisp and bright and almost bursting with color. But there was definitely something unsatisfying about the film.

I’m the very last person to say everything old is good, everything new, bad. But there are some substantial changes which are worth noting.

Beauty and the Beast was the forerunner of future animated films with the first in-company use of a computer animation sequence in a feature film (the scene where Belle dances with the Beast in the ballroom). In a film where there are tens of thousands of expertly hand drawn cells animated into a feature by what was, at the time, one of the most expert production crews in the animation business, the computer animation looks shoehorned and does not fit the aesthetic of the film. By today’s computer animation standards, the product is quaint and is reminiscent of a scene from the early computer game Rift.

Nevertheless, this embodies the spirit of the zenith of Disney hand-drawn animation that included The Little Mermaid (1989), The Rescuers Down Under (1990), Beauty and the Beast (1991), Aladdin (1992), and The Lion King (1994). These films also represent the run up to a fully computer animated film, with each film incorporating more sophisticated computer-aided animation techniques.

The film also represents a golden era of sorts that contains conventions that current films abandon. For the most part, the actors in this film are Broadway voice actors, the most notable exceptions being Angela Lansbury and Jerry Orbach (whose French accent makes his grumbly Dirty Dancing and Law and Order personas unrecognizable by comparison). The songs are practically written for a Broadway musical, and one might call this an animated musical rather than an animated feature since the songs take such precedence. According to IMDB trivia, Lansbury suggested that the title track be sung by a professional singer, but she recorded one take to appease the production staff, and that take was ultimately used in the film. By comparison with computer animation, there’s something charming about the slapdashedness of such a gargantuan project as drawing and animating tens of thousands of still frames combined with rock and roll snap takes.

Pixar films are clinical in their mechanized precision, and do not have run-over coloration in the stills, mismatched voice and character movement, or reused animation: flaws that endear an audience. Outtakes are manufactured, but are the simulacra of imperfection. The voices are supplied by Hollywood stars who most likely record several hundred, heavily-edited takes: as Jon DiMaggio (Bender from Futurama) pointed out in his interview with AV Club, they are brought on cast to sell tickets with their names, not give quality performances. Beauty and the Beast is a nostalgic trip back to before the tipping point where animation became a fully computerized and (comically) further commercialized art form.

B+

Remakes: Subtitles and “Americanization”

subtitle example
In a thoughtful piece on sequels, the film industry, and what qualifies as a film, Roger Ebert echoes many critics in calling summer 2011 the “summer of the sequel.” This summer, I plan on writing a few blog entries on different types of sequels and remakes, the so called recycled and repackaged content that major label studios heat up and serve like so much leftover meatloaf. First up, subtitles and “Americanizations.”

The common perception of Americans is that we don’t enjoy watching films with subtitles, but I have a hard time believing that. It certainly isn’t for lack of ability that Americans don’t pay to see subtitled films in theaters: the United States is in a many-way tie for 20th in global literacy rate (99%). It’s not because we don’t like foreign films or actors, especially when it comes to action films (Jet Li, Jackie Chan, Michelle Yeoh, Tony Jaa, and many others are household names who broke into the American market through subtitled martial arts films). Why do subtitled films get such a bad rap?

Horn and Beale in a 2010 LA Times article argue that distribution systems for good foreign films are not in place in the U.S., and marketing expectations are over inflated (most films won’t get a distribution deal if gross takes are expected to fall short of the $1M mark). It seems like a logical argument, since comparing gross takes from a film that receives limited art-house distribution with, say, Transformers: Dark side of the Moon (or whatever it’s called), tells you nothing about the quality or popularity of those titles. In fact, it seems logical that if Transformers were released in only a few theaters nationwide, and there were no marketing in the form of endless TV, radio, and internet spots, then it would probably fare no better than a foreign language film. (Some Hollywood releases might as well be in a foreign language with no subtitles, as the dialogue is just filler that sets the impossibly small stakes for the amped up action sequences.)

Are we lazy perhaps, unwilling to read in a medium where sound and movement dominate? Maybe the subtitles are too distracting? The answer to both is “no.” Accessibility, viewing environments, and complex visual displays all provide formats whereby commonplace, everyday manifestations of assistive, reiterative, or supplemental text-on-screen scenarios occur. For instance, think about the following scenarios: watching television at a gym or a bar, watching a safety video on an airplane, the news or stock price “ticker” on a cable news channel. These are all situations where text is a welcome (perhaps tolerated) and distraction free substitute for, or addition to visual and aural components. I’m not arguing that subtitles in a motion picture are exactly the same thing as the scenarios I mentioned, but they are not too far off in some cases.

Are we lazy perhaps, unwilling to read in a medium where sound and movement dominate? Maybe the subtitles are too distracting? The answer to both is “no.”

From a communications standpoint, a lot of communication is done with facial expressions, gesticulation, tone of voice, and other elements that are not completely tied to the semantic content of spoken words. In artistic performances, much more communication occurs through camera angles and effects as well as music (sometimes to the point of cliche). If you watch a foreign language film with no subtitles, especially in cultures that are similar to ours, you could probably understand much of what is going on without having a clue what the characters are saying. In fact, you could probably describe the major plot points with a surprising amount of accuracy, adjusting for cultural differences that skew your perception. So what are the subtitles really telling us?

That seems to me to be wholly dependent on the genre. Genres such as action films, which enjoy a wide popularity in the U.S. regardless of language, don’t tend to place as much emphasis on dialogue. For instance, you could easily watch Fearless and pick up what’s going on without one lick of dialogue: that particular film relies heavily on hero and redemption archetypes. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon might pose more of a problem. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, a journalism and political thriller, would be near indecipherable. In general, I would argue that action films and comedies (at least those that rely on physical comedy or visual irony) require less attention to subtitles than dramas, where much the heavy lifting is done by dialogue.

Translating foreign films into an American market used to be a simple process of dubbing in American English dialogue performed by voice actors. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Bruce Lee both famously appeared in dubbed films, even though they both spoke passable English. The problem: lose the original sound track and you get a jarring, dissatisfying mix-up of sound and facial movement (along with low grade, sometimes asynchronous, sound effects). Dubbed English is especially aggravating to cinephiles and genre/story fans who wish to experience a film in it’s “original” format (albeit with some assistive measures like subtitles or light glosses).
Let the right one in promotional poster
Hence, it would seem that the best we can do, apart from telepathic translation messages, is to have subtitles. Not so! In the past decade, we have seen numerous remakes of foreign language films, minus the original actors, directors, and in some cases, story line. In their place, American actors, American directors, and Americanized storylines.

Take for instance Låt den rätte komma in (En: Let the Right One In) (2008) and its Americanized counterpart, Let Me In (2010). In terms of actors and directors, an Americanized remake where the characters speak English must, by necessity, have English-speaking actors and directors. Without knowing whether the original cast and crew spoke English, it’s safe to say that many of them probably did not speak at an acceptable proficiency level or without a marked accent that would make their speech patters incongruous with an otherwise American film. Hence, they are all dropped.

Storylines are a different beast entirely. If the true goal of remaking a foreign film were to eliminate subtitles, then the film would be a shot-by-shot remake with English speaking actors: an “Englishization” as it were. That is not the case with this film, or with other comparable horror film remakes for that matter (e.g. The Ring or The Grudge which remake Ringu and Ju-On, respectively). Instead, the stories are rewritten for American settings and around American expectations of story. Controversial or disturbing elements, such as the castration of the “girl” in Let the Right One In, are frequently dropped (to appease the MPAA rating board I assume). Plots are reorganized into a linear trajectory, subplots are dropped, and characters are merged to make composites (as often happens when novels or graphic novels are converted into screenplays). The goal then, when remaking foreign films, is not solely to avoid subtitles, but to make a film that major label studios believe will be more palatable to American audiences.

If the true goal of remaking a foreign film were to eliminate subtitles, then the film would be a shot-by-shot remake with English speaking actors: an “Englishization” as it were.

This results in thematic problems which compromise the vision of the original film. In Let the Right One In, the ambiance of the film is one of isolation from culture and society, such that a boy finds a brutal vampire to be a superior companion to his classmates. The palpable solitude of the scenes and cultural void that the boy lives in is magnified, I believe, by a foreign viewer missing the cultural cues that soften the profound sense of strangeness for a native-language viewer–a case where being a foreign viewer adds to the experience. The tone of Let Me In totally reverses that, with cultural elements such as Mrs. Pacman, Now and Later candy, and “I’m Burning for You” playing on a radio all serving to soften the atmosphere of strangeness for viewers. With the relief of pop culture making the story more relatable for the viewer, a totally different aesthetic exits. Does this mimic the original experience of the native-language viewer when watching the “original” film, or rob the foreign-language viewer of the unique experience of watching a foreign film with foreign cultural elements? Frankly, cultural elements don’t translate on a one-to-one scale, and you can’t remake something exactly as it was. The question then becomes are you remaking something, or just copying it?

I was told (and feel free to blast me if I have this wrong) that Harry Potter novels have British idioms and British English spellings edited into comparable American idioms and American English spellings for versions sold in the U.S. Does this significantly detract from the story? Who’s to say really, since language is such a specific part of culture–you can’t have a perfect translation from one language to another without losing something, tangible or intangible. Can you translate a film from culture to culture the same way you translate a language? More likely, when you Americanize a film you lose something important: the chance to learn and experience, however imperfectly, another culture through arguably the best and most relevant teaching device–aesthetics.

(Subtitle photo by Henrique used under Creative Commons CC-BY-SA 3.0 license, promotional movie poster from IMDB used under fair-use, illustrative and criticism provision.)

Yet another garden update…

I promise this will be the last garden update for a while until I actually start picking vegetables. I finished planting this past week and here’s how it looks:

garden box

Because I procrastinated so long, I got a bargain on the plants at $2.50 a piece. Since they were so cheap, I bought two green pepper plants, a cilantro plant, and one pumpkin plant that I hope I will yield at least one pumpkin (hopefully two) that can be carved and used for pumpkin bread this autumn. I also planted cucumbers, radishes, and yellow onions.

Unfortunately, I’m noticing a lot of insects hanging out on the leaves which I hope are not the kind of insects that kill off your plants. Below are some pictures of the sprouts, and I promise this is the last garden post for a while.

cucumber sprouts

radish sprouts

Movie Roundup: Late June, Early July

I have finally finished up with my qualifying exam paper, and I am only now starting to catch up with everything else going on in my life to start writing about films again. For my 51st blog entry, here is a post with some of the films I’ve seen recently.

Judy Moody and the Not Bummer Summer (2011), Dir. John Schultz, 91 min., in theaters

In the tradition of manic pixie dream girls, Aunt Opal (Heather Graham) arrives to whimsically entertain and uplift our protagonist, the sulky Judy Moody (Jordana Beatty), after her summer plans are ruined by vacationing friends and parents. It may surprise you, but I did not voluntarily elect to see this film; Nicole had to watch this as part of her research for a conference paper she presented a few weeks ago. I haven’t seen many films made for children in the last fifteen years or so, but this film is certainly not a gateway back to that genre. Fun is quantified and hyper-fetishized (Judy is obsessed with scoring “thrill points” by accomplishing “uber-rare” dares) which I would expect of children growing up in this era, yet child characters in the film rarely use computers or mobile phones (perhaps they are too young??) and live in a 50’s style suburban dream world, with parents and friends who look like they stepped off the set of Leave it to Beaver with flip hairdo’s and round glasses (one of Judy’s friends is practically Alfalfa from The Little Rascals). The whole thing looks like a middle-aged woman’s view of childhood on crack. Also, the dialogue, whether it comes from a children’s book or not, is atrocious–a sample:

“We can beautify the world with our amazing art”

“Aunt Opal says when all else fails, dance”

“Let’s go on Google! Let’s Google fun!”

That is just terrible. I went home and watched The Goonies the same night, and noticed that it’s not much better, but I will defend that film over Judy Moody for the intangibles that make that film a classic, a status that I predict this film will never achieve. For the ‘rents, if N and I could sit thought it without hanging ourselves, you can probably survive just fine.

D

Collateral Damage (2002), Dir. Andrew Davis, 108 min., Netflix (disc)

The appeal for this film is that I have seen pretty much every other Arnold Schwarzenegger film every made, except this one (not very a very strong rationale, but it’s also summer). Schwarzenegger had made several pieces of garbage-iola in the run up to this film (Jingle All the Way, The 6th Day, End of Days, etc.), but this really is the prize pig of the bunch. The plot trajectory is basically the same as Commando (1985), except that instead of being a kick-ass, special-forces, black-ops killing machine, Schwarzenegger plays a fire fighter. Don’t get me wrong, I respect a man or woman who can rush into a burning building, drag out a half dead victim, and then resuscitate said victim; however, I don’t necessarily want to see that person take on a Colombian drug syndicate and lose, repeatedly, without firing a gun or beating anyone up. To credit the writers’ attempts at trying something new for AS, they do attempt several ways of integrating his knowledge of firefighting and explosives investigation into the means by which he disposes of the baddies, but all for naught. To wit, the final scene involves AS disposing of someone with his superior fireman knowledge and a fire axe, and the fire axe does not cleave any of the baddies–it is merely your standard chopping utensil and not a close-quarters combat weapon…even Backdraft has that. Also, in the ultimate sin of an AS movie, there were no good one liners.

D-

Other films I bumped into:

Khwaam jam sun… Tae rak chan yao (en: Best of Times) (2009), Dir. Yongyoot Thongkongtoon, 117 min., at the Chicago International Film Festival Free Summer Screening, Thai with English Subtitles

A humorous and pleasant romantic comedy which builds on many universal themes of longing and loss while interweaving them with Thai culture and beautiful shots of the Bangkok and Thai country landscapes. The first half of the film follows Keng (Arak Amornsupasiri) as he begrudgingly falls again for his lost first love, Fai (Yarinda Bunnag), who dated, wed, and subsequently divorced his secondary school best friend. The concurrent subplot consists of two elderly people courting and dealing with the constraints of Thai culture and their own infirmities, whom chance brings together with the younger couple. The delightful and equally bawdy humor melts away in the last third of the film and is replaced by (at times) a sappy, though well conceived storyline whose main detraction is the overly sweeping melodies that accompany the equally sweeping shots; they compound to create a sense of somewhat unearned sentimentality. That weak finish is incapable of taking away from the otherwise well written, shot, and acted film. It’s showing again this Saturday at 2p.m. at the Chicago Cultural Center next to Millenium Park, and I would recommend checking it out, especially since it is totally free and open to the public. As a side note, there are a lot of great films coming up on the free summer screening schedule.

B

Films in my Netflix queue that I plan on reviewing:

The Room (2003): At the request of an old friend, I am going to watch what has been called out on Wikipedia as one of the worst films ever made. We’ll see how this baby compares to Battlefield Earth, which is also on the Wikipedia worst films list and which I will not watch again for any reason, ever.

Rear Window (1954): Nicole and I had planned to watch more Hitchcock films since our midnight screening of Frenzy at the Music Box last December. It should wash out the bad taste of some of the films I have seen recently.

That’s all for now. Try to do better about writing the next time.

Making a garden

garden space So this is the space where I would like a new garden bed to be in my yard. A couple of days ago (the hail storm day) I looked at plans to build a raised garden bed at this site. So far, things have been going okay, though not stellar. I have to say that since I renovated my apartment, I have at least learned how to use the right tool for the right job. Of course, at the time, I was working with my father in law, who is a master carpenter, woodsmith, electrician, locksmith, and skilled at many other trades as well as the owner of every tool imaginable. What I seem to struggle with is how to use the tools at my disposal (which are usually the wrong ones) and the materials I have (which are usually subpar) to try to approximate the work of a master craftsman, or at least not fall apart moments after assembly.

garden materialsOn Friday, I bought some materials from Home Depot including lumber and PVC piping for the frame for a bird net (to keep out Robins which are pretty numerous in my neighborhood). At HD, they would not cut down the 10′ PVC lengths for me, and instead handed me a coarse tooth, tree hack saw and told me to cut it myself; I don’t see how having, for all they know, and unskilled person who might have never held a saw in his hands before today try to saw a 10′ bendy pipe on a pipe rack where it is wobbling all over the place is a good move for their insurance premiums, but who am I to question. After some work and help from a dude passing who took pity on me, I finally hacked down the pipe and got it in my Honda Civic. I got the materials home and was ready to work. You can see them stacked up in my garage on the left. The only problem: apparently, the “indoor” yard at HD is really and outdoor yard where they move in the lumber every morning, because the wood was thoroughly soaked when I got it home. My guess is that it was either kept outdoors and soaked by the hail/rain storm Thursday, or it was on a flatbed on its way up to Chicago that day.

Despite the soaking wet lumber, I tried to get some good cuts, but to no avail. The wood was soaked and hard to cut down, gumming up and just being difficult in general. I got nothing but bad cuts the first day, so I let the wood dry out one day and it was still pretty wet today when I went out to cut. I finished up my cuts today, but they were not too great. I will need to chisel and file down some rough cuts to make it look semi-respectable, and it will certainly look nothing like the image in the plans with ultra plumb fits on their boards. Hence, why it matters to have a chop saw when needing nice cuts like this (birthday gift anyone??).

Today, I laid all my pieces out and was ready to start fastening, when my cordless drill crapped out on me. I tried to recharge the battery and puttered around the house while I waited, but all for naught. The batteries were totally drained and the power was just not there to drive the 3.5” deck screws into the boards. With disappointment, I had to pick up all my materials and tools and wait since I had no time to clean up and make a run to HD for a new drill. I found a Ryobi 3/8” 4.5 amp driver that looks like it will get the job done, so I will pick it up tomorrow and hopefully build the box Monday afternoon. I’m really hoping to have the bed in, filled, covered, and planted by Friday, so I will try to post an update then.

Take cover!!

hailNicole was watching TV and I was taking a nap in the living room when all of a sudden we heard the loudest thunder clap I have ever heard in my life, followed by what sounded like glass breaking. We both pretty much had a heart attack and the cats ran into the other room and started freaking out. I checked the windows, but nothing looked broken that I could see, so I put on my shoes and grabbed a flashlight to go take a look.

When I got outside, there were people standing around all up and down my street looking for damage. I saw one woman sort of half walking/half running for her life in the calmest way possible. I was only outside for a few minutes looking around when I started to hear something hitting the car roofs and hoods out on the street. At first, the noise was really sporadic and hollow, like if you were throwing rocks at an empty 50 gallon drum. Then I heard the unmistakable sound of a windshield getting hit with something (just like BP in little league).

After realizing what was coming, I started to walk back to the house when the piece of hail in the above picture fell down. I bent over and picked it up, and when I saw the size of it, I started to run. I got hit on the back a few times, but luckily made it inside before the bulk of the storm hit. Nicole opened the door for me and we had to almost shout over the sound of the hail hitting our house. Here are some pictures.

In Nicole’s hand:
hail

In my hand:
hail

A shot of the gangway that Nicole took. The hail was around golf ball size when it was coming down before the rain:
hail

The China Syndrome (1979) / The Day After (1983)

Working on my qualifying exam paper left me way behind in my blog this past week, so I am just catching up with a couple of nuclear disaster films that I watched a couple of weeks ago.

I also decided that I’m changing my rating system to grades instead of numbers since I feel like stars and numbers are a reductive and not very informative way of evaluating the overall quality of a film, not that grades are much better. Maybe I’m just missing handing out letter grades since it’s summer :)

The China Syndrome (1979)
Dir. James Bridges, 122 min.

During a routine press story, Kimberly Wells (Jane Fonda), a reporter and her camera man, Richard Adams (Michael Douglass), witness an accident in a nuclear plant that nearly results in a meltdown. After the crisis is resolved, a nuclear plant control room worker, Jack Godell (Jack Lemon), notices a problem with a piece of machinery in the plant that has been systematically covered up in order to avoid an overhaul of the plant, which would cost the power company millions of dollars. Adams secretly films the crisis from an observation booth, landing Wells in hot water with her bosses who recognize that it’s not only illegal, but pulling Wells away from her career as a Veronica Corningstone-esque soft-news reporter. Godell eventually decides to go public with the information, but this angers the power plant officials (as you might expect).

This film addresses a lot of late 70’s/early 80’s sexist, capitalist, and ethics themes. It’s hilarious to see Douglass, who played an ardent capitalist in some of his most memorable roles (the Wall Street films and The Game) as a bearded anti-nuclear advocate. Fonda is objectified by almost everyone around her, including Douglass who slaps her on the backside at one point (perhaps suggesting an on screen romantic relationship, but not one that is ever referenced elsewhere in the film). Her bosses and even her coworkers lay the sexism on pretty thick, which is one concern I had with this film. There’s not a lot of subtlety or complexity to the characters: the nuclear plant board members hold meetings in a high rise boardroom complete with crystal chandeliers, cigars, and brown liquor in crystal glasses; Godell looks like he’s right out of NASA’s flight control room, complete with Gene Kranz’s sweater vest; Wilford Brimley’s control room character actually says “I’m a company man.”

However, I think the lack of character complexity plays to this film’s charms. Everyone in it is driven by their profession and everyone’s code of ethics and responsibilities converge in the final scenes of the film, which are tense and emotional. Plus, there’s Wilfold Brimley.

B+

The Nagasaki Nuclear BombingThe Day After
Dir. Nicholas Meyer, 127 min.

In 1983 when this film was released, tensions in Eastern Europe were high and nuclear weapons proliferation was unchecked. Ronald Reagan was discussing putting nuclear deterrent measures in orbit (Star Wars), and the Soviets were developing an anti-ballistic missile shield around Moscow.

I just read an article about how Hollywood directors are all secretly pushing a liberal agenda, and this film and director were referenced by name (in my opinion, kind of junk reporting). Political bias in media is a hard nut to crack. Many people argue that we live in a liberally biased media environment, and conservatives must be audacious to be heard and understood. I argue that metrics are not yet in place to measure such a bias (I recently finished a pilot study on spoken word media bias in May that I hope to develop into a conference paper). The article that I read on Yahoo news references some high profile Hollywood directors and producers, but is a totally inappropriate sample size given the several decades of liberal entertainment bias that the documentary film in the article is striving to document. It’s no secret that many in Hollywood wear their liberal views on their sleeve, but I doubt that Hollywood producers whose primary goal is movie ticket sales are interested in secretly promoting a liberal agenda in a country where just under 50% of the voting populace votes for a Republican presidential candidate.

All political bias aside, The Day After rarely prosthelitizes 1980’s liberal viewpoints. Except for the role of Jason Robards as a late-middle age heart surgeon who calls nuclear escalation “crazy,” there are no grandstanding speeches or subtle political subtexts that I could detect (except perhaps that nuclear weapons kill people and destroy civilization, which seems more logical than partisan). Perhaps this film favors anti-proliferation over nuclear deterrence, but what would the counter-film be: a picture of the status quo forever? Isn’t that what deterrence provides? It’s hard to image a pro-deterrence film, except a film telling the horror story of a U.S. that relinquishes all nuclear weapons.

There is some disillusionment with the government after the nuclear crisis in the film, but I missed how that is a critique of period Republican leadership and not a critique of the lack of leadership and infrastructure to deal with a crisis in general.

In my opinion, after viewing this film, you could make a strong critique of liberal views as well (especially the idea that the University and centers of higher education will hold all the answers in the event of a crisis, which they clearly don’t in this film). If there is any takeaway from this film it’s that nuclear war is a devastating specter (dare I errh, say, swaard of Dahmocleese) whose shadow remains up to the present day. Thankfully, two decades ago President Reagan took the first steps toward non-proliferation. Whether or not the interpretation of his diary is correct and the private screening of this film for him served as a catalyst for his role in nuclear arms reduction talks, we should not discredit the film’s content based on the opinions of the filmmaker. Anyone who does so is missing the true point of art: the reader makes the meaning and carries the spirit of the art into the world, and the author’s intention is not nearly as important as the impact on the reader.

B

Other flotsam I bumped into this week
Deep Impact (1998): With a cast this star studded (Morgan Freeman and Robert Duvall got second billing on the TiVo guide), it’s hard to image such a cacophonous, bloated clunker of a film. It tries to be four films in one (teen coming of age story, gritty political reporter drama, Armageddon, and lastly a PSA on how to handle the complete destruction of the planet).

Films I’m expecting to review

  • Judy Moody (2011): My wife has to watch this as part of a conference paper she’s working on, so I begrudgingly agreed to go with
  • Collateral Damage (2002): This is the last of the Schwarzenegger films that I haven’t seen. Not sure if this predates his love child.