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  1. DVD Journal: "Being Julia"
  2. Stratospheric Videocams
  3. De Young Museum Impressions
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  5. No Slow Dancing
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  7. Save Dying Languages?
  8. Toga Movies

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Friday, November 18, 2005

DVD Journal: "Being Julia"
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- My DVD find of my current vacation has been the sumptuous period romp "Being Julia." Although it's chickflick enough that many straight guys will probably prefer to avoid it, I can report that my very manly stepfather-in-law found the picture as touching and funny as I did, and as The Wife did too. It's a comedy-drama set in the theater world of 1930s London, with plenty of is-it-reality-or-is-it-make-believe metaphysics-lite to chew on -- something along the lines of "Shakespeare in Love," if less playful and more emotionally substantial. Full of gorgeous old cars, richly appointed lodgings, and extravagant backstage scenes, "Being Julia" is the kind of beautifully upholstered, cleverly-turned entertainment that people used to call "delicious." Annette Bening plays a legendary British theater diva who, moving into her 40s, is having herself one heckuva crisis. Julia is still a great -- if fading -- beauty, but she's painfully aware that she's no longer young. Life is taking some kind of turn for her. Where has the passion gone? Julia and her producer husband have a marriage of mutual respect -- ie., they're devoted, but they both screw around. And the starring roles? Well, these days they kind of come and go. Is anything she's feeling real, or at least any more real than anything else she's feeling? What does any of it -- the fame, the roles, the art -- really mean? And where has the spark gone, dammit? Julia needs to revive herself, in other words. Given that she's an actress, the agent of her revival is a new love affair. Yet love is never as simple as it first appears, is it? Working from a novella by Somerset Maugham, Ronald Harwood has devised a sweet and malicious script that is full of scenes so actable that they ought to be used as examples in intro-to-playwriting classes. Istvan Szabo directs with a lot of fondness and respect, and gives the film a rich, Visconti-goes-to-Prague mise-en-scene -- no surprise to learn that much of the film was in fact shot in Eastern Europe. But you watch movies like this one even more than most for the actors, and the cast in "Being Julia" really sings. Jeremy Irons is suave and witty as Julia's matinee-idol-turned-producer husband. Lucy Punch is a hilariously in-over-her-head combo of glamorous and gauche as Julia's ambitious young rival. Michael Gambon turns on a lot of stirring hamminess as Julia's deceased first mentor, a provincial director who made her a star, and who visits in spirit to supply coaching even now. Nearly everyone in the cast turns in a charmer of a performance; they keep in constant contact with both earnestness and a sense of the absurd. At the center of it all is Annette Bening, who I found staggeringly good. Helplessly overdramatizing everything, Julia is a diva to the ends of her fingernails, and Bening doesn't shy from showing what an exhausting life-destroyer a diva can be. But she also finds... posted by Michael at November 18, 2005 | perma-link | (8) comments

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Stratospheric Videocams
Donald Pittenger writes: Dear Blowhards -- Besides cramped seating, the thing that annoys me most about long-distance flights is the one-size-fits-all movie/video presentations on screens mounted on section partitions and monitors attached high in the cabin. It's bad enough on transcontinental flights, but overkill sets in when flying overseas. American Airlines would serve up a couple movies or more and fill the rest of the time with CBS features, recent sit-com episodes and even I Love Lucy reruns. For you readers keeping track of my weirdness, here's more to add to your list of quirks: I prefer looking out the window to renting a headset -- or accepting a free headset -- to listen to the audio accompanying the unavoidable video. Nope, never spent a dime for that. Fortunately, as politicians will say, Help Is On The Way. Actually help's already here provided you're on the right airline or airliner. Help takes the form of small video screens mounted on the backs of seats. Instead of a single entertainment sequence, you can select what you view from a reasonable variety of offerings. On transatlantic flights, I prefer the maps showing the route and the position of the plane along with statistics such as altitude, airspeed, groundspeed, distance/time relative to origin and destination, and so forth. On a recent Polar flight from Copenhagen to Seattle I was able to track latitude, discovering that we peaked just shy of 78 degrees north. Frontier Airlines had such screens on their Airbus A319s that I flew on from Seattle to Denver and return last year. American Airlines had them on their transatlantic Boeing 777s, but not the smaller, older 767s. SAS (Scandinavian) has them on their big Airbus A340s, but with an interesting twist. Airbus A340. SAS's A340s have videocameras mounted so that you can select views of what's ahead and what's below the aircraft. This was fascinating, especially when the plane was taxiing and taking off and landing; you sort of get a pilot's view of things. On my recent SAS flights I had my beloved window seating, so I didn't check the video views much while airborne. But if I were stuck in an inside seat, it would have made the trip much more enjoyable than otherwise. But I did get one particularly fascinating view from the downward-pointing camera. We were somewhere around northern Alberta vectored towards Vancouver and far removed from well-traveled air lanes. On a whim, I switched the seatback monitor to the down-pointed videocam. I saw a jet contrail dividing the image on the little screen, a wispy contrail. Gradually the contrail narrowed and became less wispy; we were gaining on whatever was below us. Then at the top of the screen appeared an airliner, a jet with two engines. It was hard to judge how far below us the other plane was flying, most likely 2,000 feet, perhaps 4,000. The airliner dropped down the screen and disappeared off the bottom a minute or two after it first appeared.... posted by Donald at November 17, 2005 | perma-link | (7) comments

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

De Young Museum Impressions
Donald Pittenger writes: Dear Blowhards -- The newest big city art museum is the totally rebuilt de Young in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park. The previous de Young was damaged in the 1989 earthquake to the point that it was closed in 2000 in fear that it might not survive another quake. It was demolished two years later to make way for a new building. Here is a picture of the old museum building. Old de Young building. The new building was designed by Basel, Switzerland architects Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron, winners of the Pritzker Prize. It opened 15 October and The Fiancée and I inspected it 13 November. David Littlejohn reviewed the museum in the 3 November Wall Street Journal. His opening description is hard for me to improve upon: The new de Young Museum is basically a blank brownish box -- the color changes in different light, and may one day turn green -- 420 feet long, 240 feet wide and 40 feet high. A 144-foot tower -- a box atop a warped pyramid -- rises at the east end. A punctured space-frame canopy flies out 50 feet beyond the building at the west. Both tower and canopy are wrapped in copper screens: the undulating, slit-open roof is also covered in copper. Except from a few dramatic angles and in just the right light, the exterior of the new $200 million de Young is uninviting and not easy to love. This was from the critic who enthused over Rem Koolhaas' Seattle Public Library (that I loathe). He goes on to say Many of the interior public spaces, on the other hand, are both inspired and inspiring. The visitor is energized by the very quality of thinking and intensity of imagination that went into them. As for the art inside, Littlejohn informs us that After the 1972 shotgun wedding of the de Young to the city's other public art museum -- the California Palace of the Legion of Honor -- all the de Young's European works were transferred to the Legion. The private San Francisco Museum of Art (now of "Modern" Art) laid claim to international works from Matisse on. In 1973, the private Asian Art Museum was founded. This left the de Young, even before its enforced relocation, with the problem of displaying in some coherent fashion "everything left over." Having let Littlejohn set the scene, let's take a look. Aerial view of museum under construction. This is an aerial view taken while under construction. Note the tapered "fingers" of the structure. The interiors of these are of course tapered as well. Open spaces between the fingers contain rocks and bits of foliage visible via windows of various sizes and shapes, the views including the nearby exterior wall of the neighboring "finger" as backdrop. Approach view. Approaching the museum's entrance the visitor sees mostly a blank copper wall relieved by dimpled texturing. Note the ribbon of windows (for the lobby area and gift shop top level),... posted by Donald at November 16, 2005 | perma-link | (12) comments

Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Fan though I am of my native country, there are some things about the USA that can drive me nuts. How literal-minded we often are ... Our ambivalence towards culture ... The way we let financial and economic considerations make so many of our decisions ... Our endlessly conflicted feelings about pleasure. Example for today: napping. I've been on vacation for the last week. On not one of these days have I failed to take a nap -- and each one of these naps has been a blissful indulgence, as luscious and glorious as the best wine, a perfect afternoon on the beach, bittersweet chocolate, or a hot-'n'-heavy make-out session. I nod off as if into the bosom of the Great Mother herself, and I wake up feeling nothing more articulate than "Oh, yeah, baby, that was goooooood." It seems to me that such experiences need no justification -- that "intensity of pleasure" and "deep satisfaction" are self-evidently things to be desired, enjoyed, cherished, and respected. Discussing such pleasures can be a challenge, though. What's to be said about them? Informed and talented food and travel writers can analyze and evoke something of what food and travel experiences are like. But they're pros. How can the rest of us express and compare notes about simple-but-deep pleasures? Hey, rhapsodizing, chortling lewdly, rolling the eyes in smug self-satisfaction, and sitting there with a stoned expression all work for me. By the way: we have food and travel writers. Where are our "sleep writers"? So how does America contend with the napping question? As far as I can tell, this important topic is dealt with in the following ways: Some see napping as a reflection of a failing. If you were doing everything right, you wouldn't need to nap. This stems from the American conviction that a person ought to be bursting with dynamism 24/7, and if he isn't then something is dreadfully wrong. Some see napping as an aspect of a larger problem that needs to to be addressed and licked: "Today, in the news -- fatigue, and how to overcome it." To some of a scientific bent, napping is strange -- a peculiarity to be investigated. We aren't perfect robots: Let's try to explain why not! To others, napping is a productivity question. A person who naps isn't wasting time. No, he's doing what needs to be done to be even more productive than he'd otherwise be. And then there's the "it's good for you," napping-as-health crowd. Coming up with excuses for napping -- how pathetic is that? It's like persuading yourself that you eat chocolate for the phytochemicals. In my Googling, the only people I found who praised napping for the sheer joy of the act (or non-act) were New Age-ish types. And ain't that America: on the one hand, literal-minded economics/productivity/science/health experts, and on the other a beleaguered, ragtag group of of crystals-and-incense freaks. Sigh. I'm glad to know that my naps are... posted by Michael at November 16, 2005 | perma-link | (35) comments

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

No Slow Dancing
Donald Pittenger writes: Dear Blowhards -- Any readers who can't tolerate "Back when I was young, sonny, we did it this way" screeds have my permission to scroll to the posting below. Okay...gone now? [Ahem.] Back when I was young, well make that when I was of courtin' age, I liked to take dates out dancing. Especially gals I was dating for the first time. The reason for this (in my warped opinion, of course) is that slow dancing (anyone remember Johnny Mathis records?) can give a couple an opportunity to discretely find out how physically "in synch" they are. Another reason is that if the girl dances cheek-to-cheek (itself a message) and her cheek feels almost hot, well, you get the idea. Plus, it's an enjoyable activity in its own right. Nowadays I find it hard to find a place with a band that can play slow-dancing music. Or classic swing. Back when I was young (oops, said that already); back in the early 60s dance bands usually played a mixture of tempos -- slow, Latin, swing, rock 'n' roll -- and played each one straight. Recent experiences suggest this isn't being done. Here are two examples: The bands at San Francisco's Top of the Mark a year or two ago did play a variety of music, but the "slow" songs didn't have a single, well-established beat. Instead, they wove two tempos through it. I suppose this indicates skill and creativity, but I found it hard to follow; rather than enjoying the dance, I had to concentrate too hard on following the tempo I wanted to use. Recently we were at Harry Denton's Starlight Room atop the Sir Francis Drake Hotel, billed as San Francisco's top night club. The band played what struck me as disco-type music all evening (actually until I had enough and we bailed out). That's it. Oh some pieces were a dab slower or faster, but the differences were hardly noticeable. Okay, I freely admit I'm a walkin', talkin', bloggin' fossil. I'd pretty much wrapped up my courting by 1971 and whatever happened night-life-wise since then was offstage for me. And from what I read, dating seems to be a whole lot less mannered or discrete than it was before The Sixties bulldozed that aspect of our culture. Plus, I hate arguing against the market: the Starlight Room was packed, so clearly the music being dished out is what folks want these days in San Francisco anyway. Oh well, when I get married I get to pay half the piper's (actually deejay's) fee, and Johnny Mathis it will be. Later, Donald... posted by Donald at November 15, 2005 | perma-link | (9) comments

Monday, November 14, 2005

Derailed Monorail
Donald Pittenger writes: Dear Blowhards -- Seattle isn't going to get a second monorail line. The first monorail was built for the 1962 Century 21 world's fair and it's still in operation -- barely. The line runs from the old fairgrounds (now called Seattle Center) to a downtown location about one mile away, with no intermediate stops. Rolling stock consists of two trains each running on its own rail. The Swedish company that built the trains went bankrupt long ago, so maintenance and repair are costly. In 1997 some activists persuaded Seattle voters to approve funding for a monorail planning and development organization, but that went defunct in 2000 when its funding ran out. In 2002 voters approved authorization for a monorail authority that would build, own and operate a monorail system. Following escalating cost estimates and other difficulties, city officials began washing their hands of the project a couple months ago and voters voted down a new funding proposal November 8th, thus killing the project. To me, the project never made sense. Let me restate that: It would have made "sense" to me back in 1955 or 1960 when I was a kid who had had a diet of World of the Future views in the form of illustrations in magazines such as Popular Mechanics and Popular Science, not to mention photos of futuristic city exhibits at the 1939-40 New York World's Fair. Monorails were often cited as Transportation of the Future. It might be hard for present-day readers to understand that from roughly 1925 to 1960, visualizing the world of the future was a big deal. This was especially so for imaginative, suggestible boys lacking in worldly experience. If "they" -- industrial designers, illustrators, and newspaper and magazine feature writers -- said monorails were what would be common by that unimaginably distant year 2000 then, by golly, that settled the matter: vote it in! In the late 50s few monorail systems existed; the only one that comes to mind immediately is the one running through Disneyland's Tomorrowland (natch) built by the same company that made Seattle's 1962 trains. Its setting was artificial, but Seattle's wasn't. The Seattle monorail runs along Fifth Avenue through what's locally called the Denny Regrade. The Regrade once upon a time was Denny Hill, situated just north of Seattle's business district, blocking potential expansion. So the hill was dismantled, roughly 1905-30, the dirt and rocks becoming tideflat fill. By the time the hill was gone the Depression hit, halting northward expansion of the business district. In 1960, at the time world's fair projects got underway, the Regrade was a low-rise district with a mix of offices, apartments and non-fashionable retail. Today the Regrade boasts office and condominium towers and trendy retail outlets -- but not on Fifth Avenue where the monorail runs. Fifth Avenue resembles what it was in 1960 because, in my opinion, the monorail made it a dark, unfriendly street where retail stores withered. Here is what it looks like: Monorail near... posted by Donald at November 14, 2005 | perma-link | (29) comments

Save Dying Languages?
Donald Pittenger writes: Dear Blowhards -- I'm not sure there's an official list, but items in the press claim that around 6,000 languages are spoken in the world. It's axiomatic that languages develop in isolation, and a corollary of speedy modern travel and inexpensive telecommunication is that the isolation is rapidly ending and minor languages are dying. Academic analysts speculate that X% or Y% of all languages will disappear over the next 50, 100 or however-many years. A number of those same academicians have Declared A Crisis. In my opinion, the crisis is pretty much one for the academicians themselves, at least those who specialize in linguistics: they will run out of subject-matter. Some of their arguments are worthy of Spinmeister Hall of Fame status. (For example, read this or else Google on "dying languages." Even UNESCO and The Discovery Channel are in on the action.) One argument for language preservation is that isolated languages embody folk-wisdom offering insights into herbs or leaves or bark or other substances that can cure one disease or another. Therefore I must conclude if a language becomes lost, I might DIE!!! Uh, okay. Another argument that catches my attention is based on the assumption that languages are like genes or DNA and that the loss of a language is equivalent to the extinction of a biological species. I find the first argument a pathetic stretch and the second one absurd. What exactly might a language spoken by 250 people living near the Amazon River possess that, if lost, could never ever be reinvented in the future? If they have 12 names for beetles, that is nothing compared to taxonomies already performed by biologists. And if they have eight names for various types of tropical rainfall, so what? That information would be irrelevant to an Arabian nomad and the same information could be largely conveyed in other languages by use of adjectives. Furthermore, unlike biological traits that slowly change from generation to generation, languages can be modified almost instantaneously. English seems to be particularly adept at incorporating words. No English word expressing that tinge of pleasure people sometimes feel at others' misfortune? -- then borrow the German word schadenfreude. And in the far future if English is the last language standing? -- then invent a word if the concept is an important one ("blog," anyone?). With the end of isolation, a drastic reduction in the language-count is inevitable. Attempts by outsiders to maintain a small language's viability strike me as being elitist fantasies. The elitist can feel smug about doing A Good Thing while the speakers of the minor language remain mired in semi-isolated poverty, being little more than zoo-animals for the elitists and academics to coo over. Romantic fantasizing aside, it must be recognized that people are usually rational caretakers of their own well-being. The spread of railroads in Nineteenth Century France created motivation for villagers to abandon their dialects because they could be more prosperous if they could deal with traders who only... posted by Donald at November 14, 2005 | perma-link | (32) comments

Toga Movies
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- I've never been a huge fan of classical epics. Spectacle isn't generally my thing, I don't think marble looks good on film, and the diplomacy-love-and-battles storylines that are usually featured don't tend to hook me. Even so, I approve of such films. I'm glad when they're being made and watched. Rightly or wrongly, I take their existence as a sign of movieworld health. The talents of designers, costumers, and technicians are being stretched. Directors are putting large-scale craft to use. Actors, god bless 'em, are keeping straight faces while wearing silly costumes and ridiculous hairstyles. And audiences are arguing over casting choices and historical veracity. These are all good things. So, despite my lack of enthusiasm for most such movies, I cheer the genre on, and I check in on a decent number of such films. Over the weekend, The Wife and I caught up with a couple of recent attempts. "Troy" was first up. Watching "Troy," the two major facts you're forced to wrestle with are the computer effects, and Brad Pitt as Achilles. Are you adapting well to the new world of computerized crowd scenes? I'm still struggling. Watching a crowd scene in a pre-digital spectacle, you knew that the people had actually been assembled in front of the camera. When a horizon line was spanned by rows of warriors, you knew that thousands of real people had been costumed and put in place. If the moment was right in dramatic terms, you might have the fun of gasping both at the story point and at the sheer human effort involved in achieving the shots that told it. Computer-generated crowd scenes hit me very differently. They can be nifty to look at in a dazzling-computer-game kind of way. But watching a computer spectacle, I don't think I've ever felt anything resembling awe. I know that a lot of computer work and computer ingenuity has gone into creating the shots and the scenes. But it all feels so … small-scale -- more like needlework than like general-ship. Which isn't to diss needlework, just to dramatize the tension I feel between how I'm asked to take the scene and how the work that has gone into the scene actually feels to me. Even watched on DVD, the crowd scenes in "Lawrence of Arabia" feel huge and expansive. The crowd scenes in "Troy" feel like they take place on a 15" computer monitor. Plus, it all seems so arbitrary. 50,000 warriors? Hell, why not clone 'em a few more times and show 500,000? That said, some of the computer effects in "Troy" were neat enough. The shot of hundreds of triremes on their way to the Dardanelles made me go "Cool!" And "Troy"'s CG soldiers have a lot more individuality than computer-generated figures usually do. Not that watching crowds of them hurry around seemed any less like watching an ants' nest than it usually does ... Brad? Well, along with many sensible people, I'm happy... posted by Michael at November 14, 2005 | perma-link | (20) comments