Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Death by Internet: Oxford English Dictionary Edition

One of the scariest results of the slow, painful downturn in print media is the loss of permanence. Physical copies of books are, at the very least, something that can be passed down and referred to year after year. One of the comforts of a favorite book is the material space it takes up. Books frequently outlive their owners.
And now, the unkindest cut of all.
In an article titled "Internet may phase out printed Oxford Dictionary", Associated Press writer Sylvia Hui describes the latest causality of this war of attrition:
It weighs in at more than 130 pounds, but the authoritative guide to the English language, the Oxford English Dictionary, may eventually slim down to nothing. Oxford University Press, the publisher, said Sunday so many people prefer to look up words using its online product that it's uncertain whether the 126-year-old dictionary's next edition will be printed on paper at all.
While I find this incredibly distressing, the meat of the article centers around the online version of the OED. Of all the ways digital media has sought to "monetize" (how I cringe while I type that word) its content, this scheme has got to be one of the most successful. Even the New York Times couldn't make it work in the past, but the online OED seems to be doing quite well.
The digital version of the Oxford English Dictionary now gets 2 million hits a month from subscribers, who pay $295 a year for the service in the U.S. In contrast, the current printed edition — a 20-volume, 750-pound ($1,165) set published in 1989 — has sold about 30,000 sets in total.
I am heartened by the news that the online version of this information has been so effectively valued. The reason it has value is another point altogether. Even as online subscribes shell out nearly $300 per year for the privilege, the reason it has value in the first place is because of the physical product. Without the foundation, the structure above is bound to crumble.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Movie Review: "Winchell" (1998)

Like fellow '90s biopic "Ed Wood", the Made-for-HBO movie "Winchell" paints a sympathetic portrait of a generally reviled artist. Both Wood and Winchell made notably bad art in their chosen fields, but they did it incredibly unique ways, Wood with movies and Winchell with his gossip column.
Walter Winchell, here portrayed by Stanley Tucci, basically created the celebrity-obsessed culture of tabloid "journalism" that has grown like mold to cover the end-caps of every cash register in every supermarket in America. Even at his most successful he didn't even write most of his own material, as evidenced by the character of Herman Kurfeld (Paul Giamatti) who acts as Winchell's head ghostwriter.
Director Paul Mazursky breezes past the first two decades of his professional life in the beginning of the movie, assuming the viewer is well familiar with this most famous portion of his career. Instead the crux of the plot becomes Winchell's early opposition to Adolf Hitler and Nazi sympathizer/American hero Charles Lindbergh, at the implied behest of Franklin Delano Roosevelt (Christopher Plummer). The publisher of the newspaper publishing Winchell's column, William Randolph Hearst, is perturbed by this as he owns business interests in Germany in addition to being friendly towards both Lindbergh and Hitler. Winchell, a Jew himself, carries his verbal campaign against the Axis powers to the radio after his column is dropped altogether. He then joins the military after war breaks out, only to be called home FDR to once again write his insanely popular column.
This proves to be the highlight of Winchell's professional career. After capturing attention as a serious commentator with his Nazi opposition, he then turns his sights to the threat of Communism. He aligns himself tragically with soon to be reviled Wisconsin Sen. Joseph McCarthy as his House Un-American Activities Committee ruthlessly seeks to root out suspected communists. What follows is a fairly predictable slide into television and the kind of vaudeville sideshow Winchell first found success in at the start of his career. His family begins to fall apart as well when his son commits suicide on Christmas 1968 and then his wife dies a year later. When Winchell himself dies of cancer in 1972 only one person attends his funeral. Roll credits.
While I appreciate this movie's intentions, it doesn't make a compelling case for Winchell's legacy. The list of admirable qualities assigned to Winchell by this movie are as follows (while my commentary is parenthetical):
- He invented new words to suit his own purposes, which some found objectionable, but others in the literary arts found exquisite. (I do think it's interesting that he warped the English language to suit his own needs.)
- He was one of the first writers anywhere to condemn Hitler and his anti-Jewish policies. (Hitler was not really that hard of a target to hit, though I appreciate his efforts.)
- He communicated with the common man without talking down. (Even though the movie seems obsessed with glorifying the populist appeal of his sleazy tone, you only need to look at the current state of media to see the results.)
- He loved his country and fought during World War II. (I do respect his service.)
- He was a smooth talker and a snappy dresser. (Who doesn't like Stanley Tucci, right?)
For decades Winchell slung tawdry bullshit on his way to becoming the most famous columnist in America. He paid for information. He buried stories. He blackmailed people. And all the while he wasn't even writing most of what he became famous for.
Still, his contributions to the turn in public sentiment against Hitler, who called out Winchell by name as an enemy to a "new" Germany, and to the English language won't soon to be forgotten.
But ask yourself this: does that make up for us being forced to know who the Kardashians are?

Monday, August 23, 2010

Movie Review: "My Dinner With Andre" (1981)

"They've built their own prison, so they exist a state of schizophrenia. They're both guards and prisoners and as a result they no longer have, having been lobotomized, the capacity to leave the prison they've made, or to even see it as a prison."
- Andre Gregory

"I've lived in this city all my life. I grew up on the Upper East Side. And when I was ten years old, I was rich, I was an aristocrat. Riding around in taxis, surrounded by comfort, and all I thought about was art and music. Now, I'm 36, and all I think about is money."
- Wallace Shawn

"My Dinner With Andre" is the most anti-movie movie I've ever seen. If you think of all the elements that make up a movie: plot, characters, scenes, sets, etc., this film fulfills almost none of these requirements. As the title might suggest, 95 percent of "My Dinner With Andre" consists of the entirety of a dinner conversation between playwrights Wallace Shawn and Andre Gregory at an upscale New York City restaurant. Prior to arriving at the establishment we see Shawn walking to the subway while he provides a voice-over explaining how the meeting came to be. Years before, Gregory had been at the top of his game in the theater world when he launched Shawn's career by featuring one of his plays. In the meantime, Shawn has continued to work steadily in the field while Gregory has all but disappeared, leaving on trips for months at a time. With Shawn's significant other Debby (Eisenberg) away at her part job as a waitress, the dinner with Andre will be the first meeting between the two in quite some time.
After Shawn arrives at the restaurant anyone in the audience hoping that the plot of film, such as it is, will keep moving forward in any meaningful visual way is in for a rude shock. There's only so many ways characters can be shown in a two-shot and Director Louis Malle cycles through nearly every single one of them at least twice over the course of the next 100 minutes or so. For those ready to accept this new reality, this represents a marvelous break with the accepted rules of the medium. In the absence of any visual cues the dialogue becomes almost wholly responsible for moving the proceedings along.
Another interesting point is that Shawn and Gregory seem to be basically playing themselves. All of the mentioned personal details of their lives seem to correspond perfectly to reality, but even this point is up for grabs once Shawn and Gregory start conversing. Gregory maintains that humanity has become increasingly habitual in all aspects of life, making everyone an actor in their own lives.
The two quotes included at the top of the article provide a representative summation of both characters' worldviews:
Gregory desires connection with reality in all aspects. He sees humanity's predilection towards science, reason and order as a futile attempt to find permanence. Man's attempt to fill our lives with constant static amounts to nothing more than a distraction from the inevitable fact of death. Gregory relates several extravagant adventures he's been on in search of this truth including being temporarily buried alive on Halloween, eating sand on a dune in the Sahara while attempting to adapt a theatrical version of "The Little Prince" and his dalliances with several dozen musical Pollacks in a forest.
By contrast, Shawn is much more grounded in his observations. He desires comfort and freedom from confronting the very realities Gregory runs toward. During the day he writes plays that force his characters to confront these facts, but in his off-time the electric blanket on his bed provides a small amount of comfort from these same issues. He is a working man who has goals, checklists and a routine. These things make him feel as if he has some kind of control over his life. He rejects Gregory's outlook as unrealistic as accomplishing these comparatively menial tasks is what makes life worth living.
"My Dinner with Andre" all but invites the viewer's imagination to work overtime, the very skill most commonly dulled when watching movies. Not only are their stories, especially Gregory's, incredibly descriptive and colorful, the conclusions they draw invite self-reflection from the audience. For my own part, I respect Gregory's outlook, but if I'm being honest with myself, I relate most directly with Shawn. I'm a journalist and I spend my working life wallowing in the misery of humanity so I can relate my findings to others. After the work day is done, I want to do nothing more than free my mind from the facts I've ingested. Much of who you agree with comes down to nothing more than perspective. Gregory has the means to travel to Europe and North Africa to find himself. Shawn has rent to pay and errands to run.
Like obvious "Andre" progeny "Waking Life", this film is a tightly-wound knot of ideas that requires multiple viewings to completely understand. I didn't find "Andre" to have a resolution as such. It merely raised a bouquet of questions I couldn't stop thinking about for hours after the credits rolled. I feel like I could watch "My Dinner with Andre" once every five years for the rest of my life and come away with a different conclusion each time.
Of course, one thing in this life is certain, you never go up against a Sicilian when death is on the line:

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Movie Review: "Severed: Forest of the Dead" (2005)

After years of unabated production, novel variations on the theme of zombies in film are increasingly hard to come by. Some highlights along the way have included slow, traditional zombies ("Night of the Living Dead"), fast-moving "zoombies" ("Dawn of the Dead" remake), demon-possessed zombies ("Evil Dead"), zombie babies ("Dawn of the Dead" remake again) and viral zombies ("28 Days/Weeks Later"). I went into Canadian horror film "Severed: Forest of the Dead" with my eyes open that the plot lines would fall apart long before the final credits mercifully rolled down the screen, but what made me take a chance was its unique zombie premise: A giant logging company develops a genetically modified fungus that causes trees to age three times as fast as normal. Everything is going to plan for the company until some of the trees are spiked by environmental protester Rita (Sarah Lind). When one of the loggers begins chainsawing a tree that has carries both the company's genetically modified sap and Rita's metal spike, the whirring blade swings back and severs a major artery. It is this accident that causes the logger's blood and the tainted tree excretions to mix and create a new breed of flesh-eating undead.
"Severed" was filmed in British Columbia and lends the cinematography a lush backdrop over which to splatter fake blood in every direction. The jaunty zombies depicted are an interesting mix of both classic and contemporary renderings of the hungry undead. The cause of the zombie outbreak is one I've never heard of before and is an interesting break from traditionally accepted causes.
Meanwhile, back at company headquarters, the company's CEO sends his son, Tyler (Paul Campbell), to investigate the problem. The moment Tyler arrives in the company-owned forest he discovers the zombie apocalypse well under way. He quickly finds shelter in what looks to be an abandoned hermit abode along with a rag-tag group of survivors. The hippies and the loggers who had been at previously been at odds now must fight for survival against the zombie threat.
Predictably, the logic train of "Severed" sails right off the tracks into the dark ravine of incomprehensibility, but what is remarkable is how long it takes to do so. It's reasonably well shot and despite the minimal acting and dialogue power on display the first 66.6 percent of the movie is relatively watchable. The increasingly diminished group then reaches the front gate of the property. They find that the entrance has been locked by the logging company who has now figured out what has transpired.
This is when the movie completely falls apart.
Head logger Mac (Julian Christopher) informs his newly-formed posse that the only other exit is behind another mill on the other side of the property. Once they traverse the 25 to 30 miles that separate the two camps they are captured by an all-male group of loggers who have developed a violent, "Lord of the Flies" style hierarchy. Entertainment in this sister encampment consists of treating captured zombie versions of their coworkers as clay pigeons in a macabre version of skeet shooting. This diversion is completely unnecessary and is also a fairly blatant ripoff of the third act of "28 Days Later", released only three years prior.
(And another thing: how did they create this violent social order so quickly? Even if the people involved decided this was the way things would be once the dead began to rise, the infrastructure of the zombie pen alone would have taken much longer than the handful of days since the outbreak began.)
Despite the enormous structural problems that plague the foundations of "Severed" the worst thing a zombie movie can be is predictable; and I certainly never would have seen this coming.

BONUS: Apparently you can watch "Severed" in its entirety on YouTube by clicking here, but you must confirm that you are above 18 years of age by signing up for an account.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Movie Review: "Primer" (2004)

If you could change the past what would you do? More importantly, should you?
These are just a few of the seemingly endless number of questions raised by Shane Carruth's mesmerizing debut film "Primer". Even though it was written and performed in the English language, subtitles are absolutely necessary for anyone who isn't a genius-level engineer. The dialogue actively spurns the clumsy "and then this happened"-type expository speeches that litter lesser movies pandering to the lowest common denominators in the audience. Every scene is a clue to unlock a later one, making the finished product a scaffold of ideas so complex it's nearly impossible for it to be understood in one sitting. I won't pretend to understand even half of what "Primer" has to offer as I've only seen it once thus far. What I do know is that this film not only lends itself to repeat viewings, it downright requires it.
Setting-wise "Primer" springs from the same Texas soil of "Office Space". Like Mike Judge's over-educated office drones, the main characters in "Primer" are engineers in the Lone Star State who scheme of world domination in their free time. On the surface, the similarities end there, but it's worth noting the parallel as it frames the mindset of both plots. In essence, both films are about the ever-quickening spiral of destruction wrought by worker bees who have figured out a way to short-circuit the rules of their hives for their own benefit.
"Primer" is the story of Aaron (Carruth) and Abe (David Sullivan), one half of a four-man company called "Emiba Devices". The business is conducted in Aaron's garage, which also allows the members to pursue their own inventions. It is during one of these experimentations that Aaron and Abe accidentally create a time machine. However, the limits of the machine's power extend to the time that it has been turned on. After a careful solo expedition by Abe, he informs Aaron that he has constructed a pair of larger, person-sized versions of their discovery in a storage unit. Initially, Abe and Aaron are extremely cautious as to not disrupt the fragile nature of reality, but as time goes on this breaks down. They start by using this knowledge to play the stock market, but by the end of the movie they're preventing armed assaults at parties.
The rules of the universe of "Primer" are fantastical, but the central themes it meditates on are far more commonplace. Like Abe and Aaron, real science often hurtles into the unknown without regard for the consequences. Making money first and asking questions later is an all too familiar tale in the world of scientific innovation. (Remember Olestra?) This is pervasive in no small part thanks to the fact that infusions of cash are much more likely if the science in question is likely to produce a profit. It's a simple matter of incentives.
Extending beyond the world of the wrong-headed unleashing of untested discoveries is the film's statement on relationships. Even as Abe and Aaron are making cash hand over fist and playing hero to those they care about, the connective tissue of their own relationship slowly becomes completely unraveled. Every friendship is the culmination of all of the moments shared together. When these memories become unreliable, so does the future of the relationship. Surely even those in the audience who don't have access to time-bending machinery should be able to sympathize with the idea that tampering with the ecosystem of a relationship can result in complete collapse given enough time.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Portraits of the artist

Eric Burch
and I took an excursion to Montgomery Woods State Natural Reserve today to bask in the giant Redwoods. It was like living in a screensaver. Here's some amazing portraits courtesy of eBurch Photography that make me look cooler than I have any right to.