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Friday, July 6, 2007

Matte Painting
Donald Pittenger writes: Dear Blowhards -- I'm re-reading this book about matte painting, a form of movie special effects that is almost as old as the industry. Modern matte "painting" is usually done on a computer. But into the 1980s it involved artists mostly using brushes and oil paints on sheets of glass. During the heyday of Hollywood's studio system, major studios maintained matte painting shops -- and never publicized them. Matte painting saved studios large amounts of production money because sets didn't have to be comprehensive (that is, a complete room or building, say, didn't have to be built) and some location shooting could be avoided. The reason why this good thing was hushed up was that the moguls were afraid that the public would feel cheated because what they were seeing wasn't "real." Quite a difference from today where effects are an important reason for going to movies for many people. Here is an example from Earthquake of the work of Albert Whitlock, perhaps the greatest matte painter of all. This is the scene filmed on the studio backlot. Note the trees at the left -- they're not wanted. Nor are the upper parts of the buildings. Here's Whitlock's matte painting. And this is the blended shot seen by audiences. Not all of the matte is seen here. Whitlock was English, as was Peter Ellenshaw, who was just about as good. Here is a Leonard Maltin piece on Ellenshaw that is worth reading. Matte painters normally used large brushes and painted freely -- not what one might expect considering that the painting and the live-action setting need to mesh imperceptibly. The reason it works is because the camera is viewing the painting from a distance -- much like a gallery viewer might observe a painting from across the room -- and the rough-seeming details blend into something that appears realistic. Sometimes matte paintings are not supposed to look realistic. An example is the pastel mattes used to depict the Emerald CIty and countryside in the The Wizard of Oz; here the concept was to give the movie a "storybook" feel. Even with a top-notch matte painter wielding the brush, the artwork can become apparent to audiences if given enough time. For that reason, matte shots are usually kept under five or six seconds duration. Occasionally, the matte art simply isn't right and its fakery is instantly obvious. Let me cite two examples from historically-important films -- not low-budget jobs. More than a year ago I wrote here about Chesley Bonestell, best known today for his paintings of other planets and spaceships. He also was a matte artist. One of his better-known mattes was the moon panorama from Destination Moon (1950). Bonestell did a good deal of the matte work for Orson Welles' Citizen Kane. I saw Citizen Kane only once, about 40 years ago. But I remember that some of the matte work was painfully obvious. In particular, I'm thinking of outdoor scenes looking up at New York... posted by Donald at July 6, 2007 | perma-link | (7) comments

Fact for the Day -- Music-Biz Income
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- A mere seven years ago, musicians derived 2/3 of their income from pre-recorded music, with the rest of their money coming from touring, merchandise, and endorsements. Today, according to The Economist, those proportions have completely reversed. Musicians now receive the majority of their income from touring, merchandise, etc., while recordings largely function as marketing tools for T-shirts and concert tickets. Writes The Economist: The logical conclusion is for artists to give away their music as a promotional tool. Some are doing just that. This week Prince announced that his new album, "Planet Earth," will be given away in Britain for free with the Mail on Sunday, a national newspaper, on July 15th. (For years Prince has made far more money from live performances than from album sales; he was the industry's top earner in 2004.) Source. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at July 6, 2007 | perma-link | (15) comments

Thursday, July 5, 2007

Global Eats
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Wal-Mart, General Mills, and Kellogg's are importing ever-more food from China. Interesting facts for the day: In 2000, China accounted for 1 million pounds, or less than 1%, of all U.S. fresh garlic imports. By 2005, China dominated that market, exporting 112 million pounds, or 73%, of the total garlic import market. The same goes for strawberries: China exported just 1.5 million pounds in 2000 and now exports 33 million pounds to the U.S. "China's record with food imports isn't reassuring," continues BusinessWeek. "Just last month, 107 food imports from China were detained by the Food & Drug Administration at U.S. ports, according to The Washington Post. Among them were dried apples preserved with a cancer-causing chemical and mushrooms laced with illegal pesticides." Best, Michael UPDATE: It isn't a foodstuff exactly, but cough syrup from China has been blamed in the recent deaths of at least 83 people in Panama.... posted by Michael at July 5, 2007 | perma-link | (6) comments

Long, Short, Gore
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- There aren't many cultureworld cliche-phrases that make me groan quite as loudly as "the novelistic accumulation of detail." Why is this phrase often spoken in tones of praise? To me it sounds like "some author or filmmaker who piles up tons of examples instead of getting around to the damn point and moving on to the next one." Lordy, why are so many novels so very long? Even when my appetite for plowing through acres of text was greater than it is now -- back in college, or just back when my eyes were stronger than they are now -- I didn't crave ultra-long novels. I read through a decent number of the Lengthy Greats and am glad I did -- helped make me a semi-cultured person. But as soon as I stopped needing to read long I reverted to shorter works. Exceptions allowed for, of course, as we always must when it comes to culture. But, generally speaking, I simply don't like having a piece of any kind of fiction in my life for too long a time. If I can't get through a work in an evening or two, I become impatient. I haven't even had a fiction-TV series in my life since junior high, come to think of it. In recent years, I've sat through a handful of series: season one of "The Sopranos," "Firefly," and a few of the "Prime Suspect"s. ("Prime Suspect" 1 and 3 were terrif -- why was 2 so bad?) But only a few such -- and in each case I watched it on DVD and got the chore over with in a weekend. This isn't because I don't like fiction, let alone narrative, let alone reading, by the way. I can't resist taste-testing prose when I run across it, and I fancy myself a connoisseur of drama, plot, suspense, and story. But I seem to have a greater taste for shapeliness and intensity in narrative than the "I love losing myself in a fictional world for weeks at a time" crowd does. As a consequence, my own tastes generally run towards movies, plays, webseries -- complete experiences that can deliver considerable involvement yet wrap it up in an hour or two, or perhaps an evening or two. Where book-fiction is concerned, one reason I generally go for crime novels these days is that crime novels tend to be shorter, faster, more to the point, and shapelier than most lit-fiction novels are. A great Donald Westlake quote: If your subject is crime, then you know at least that you're going to have a real story. If your subject is the maturing of a college boy, you may never stumble across a story while you're telling that. But if your story is a college boy dead in his dorm room, you know there's a story in there, someplace. Come to think of it, I like spare French novellas for much the same set of reasons: They're intense,... posted by Michael at July 5, 2007 | perma-link | (22) comments

Wednesday, July 4, 2007

Edible Magazines
Donald Pittenger writes: Dear Blowhards -- Today's Seattle Times business section has an article about a group of magazines devoted to locally-grown food. The article defines "local" as being within a day's drive (by truck, presumably) -- about 250 miles, it says. The local food fad has been around for a while, but I hadn't realized that it had generated magazines. The magazines are franchised and each has a title starting with the word "Edible." Examples include Edible Portland, Edible Hawaiian Islands, Edible Ojai (the original version) and, coming next spring, Edible Seattle. Oh yes, there's also an Edible Brooklyn. My take from the article is that the mags offer info fodder for foodies along with cheerleading for local family farmers and damning those eeevil corporate farms. Apparently Edible Communities (the name of the umbrella-franchiser firm based in Santa Fe) has a good thing going. They claim average reader household income to be $110,000. New magazines are said to become profitable after the first year. And overall circulation is 2.5 million copies per year. With 30 titles at four issues per year, this comes to about 21,000 average circulation per issue. Annual subscription is $28 a year, but the magazines are give-aways at upscale food stores. This demonstrates that there is still room for new niche magazines in this on-line, digital age. And if they are successful, that's fine by me even though I don't much care who grows my food or where it comes from. (I'm a foodie of the Time Magazine fonder Henry Luce persuasion: "Food is fuel.") Later, Donald... posted by Donald at July 4, 2007 | perma-link | (15) comments

Tuesday, July 3, 2007

Nikos on Amazon
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- I'm thrilled to notice that Nikos Salingaros' books about architecture -- previously rather hard to get hold of -- can now be bought from Amazon: here, here, here. They're brilliant. You can get a good sample of Nikos' thinking by reading 2Blowhards' interview with him. All five parts can be accessed via this posting. Here's an impressed and impressive recent Ashraf Salama review of one of Nikos' books. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at July 3, 2007 | perma-link | (1) comments

Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- * Learn about the early -- the very early -- days of Kung Fu cinema, complete with videoclips from some of the movies. (Link thanks to David Chute.) * Israel and Maxim magazine have been doing some co-branding, and some Israeli women aren't happy about it. * Say hello to the sober truth about book-writing and book-publishing. * Alice proposes a convincing theory of exercise. Roissy has his own Roissy-esque take on current gym culture. * This looks like a celebration that every advanced country should treat itself to. (NSFW) * Make your home videos a little more bearable with these tutorials and these tips. And if you're a little bit more ambitious ... * Thursday divides Christians into Dostoevsky Christians and Jane Austen Christians. * Here's an amusing Powerpoint-powered takedown of Powerpoint presentations. * The Querencia gang try to make some sense of "bully whippets." * Alan Sullivan has a convincing go at Richard Schickel. * Kate Marie has some quibbles with a new AFI list of the 100 greatest American movies. * Fred Wickham watches his hair go white. * Richard Wheeler is appalled at how shoddy book editing has become. * MB Rewind: I mused about fathers, jobs, and hobbies here. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at July 3, 2007 | perma-link | (11) comments

S.T. on Performing, and On New York City
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards-- A pro performer with more than a few years of putting it out for audiences under his belt, Shouting Thomas responds to my recent posting about barnstorming across America: here and here. Fun writing from someone who knows the life and the scene far better than I do. ST also makes a point that I think is key cultural history, and that I want to underline: the way that the arts life in Manhattan has become, to be blunt about it, unsexy. These days, it can be hard even to remember, but the NYC downtown-edgy / arts-boho scene was once a hot and tingly thing. People often went into the arts because it was -- or at least seemed to be -- a sexy thing to do, as well as a sexy life to lead. What-the-hell provocation and foolhardy eroticism were cultivated for their own sweet sakes. When you went downtown, you expected and you usually encountered a lot of lewd and sometimes even joyous carrying-on. But the scene began to dry up in the early 1980s. (Dammit -- I moved here in the late '70s to take part in it myself.) What caused this development? As ST notes, the gay-ification and the feminization of the arts certainly played roles. As politically-motivated rebels moved into positions of responsibility, the clamps were tightened. Drear descended. I'll add to ST's list of causes Boomer remorse, the new careerism, the beginnings of political correctness, and the continuing entrenchment of the arts-administrator class. Art -- even far-out art -- now had to be "smart" and worthy, and not just worthy but a specific kind of arts-funding worthy. Artists grew more concerned with shrewd moves, nabbing funding, and self-positioning than with cutting loose. Nudity, hotness, and arousingness were now understood to be cause for worry and concern. The upshot: If anyone was going to strip, it was probably going to be a gay man. And the rationale for the naked or provocative moment wouldn't be to raise temperatures, but to sell a boringly-predictable political message. Though we've left the worst of those days behind us, it seems to me that its shadow lingers still. The Wife and I brush up against the Suicide Girls and po-mo burlesque scene occasionally, for instance. (Nasty Canasta is one of our faves.) And for all the naughtiness, personality, and gifts on display, everything's very knowing. There are quote marks around quote marks, and ironies buried within attitudes. Still, I'm hopeful and cheery. It seems to me that the layers of post-irony represent nothing but kids who have survived contempo upbringings throwing up pre-emptive defences against teachers and parents -- against P.C. superegos. Although too much energy may still be going into self-protection, the more important point is that edgy young people are once again throwing caution to the winds. Hallelujah: Arty kids are misbehaving sexily. (What else do you want them to do? It isn't as though they have anything substantial on their minds... posted by Michael at July 3, 2007 | perma-link | (27) comments

Monday, July 2, 2007

Saving a Dying Town
Donald Pittenger writes: Dear Blowhards -- We got a head start on the July 4th holiday by driving across the Cascade Mountains for a few days visiting friends who rented a house for the long weekend. And I wasn't able to post because the place was not in the Verizon Wireless beam -- no cellphone connection, no internet service for my macBook. Where we were was Leavenworth, Washington, a town that was well on its way to semi-extinction 45 years ago. It reached its initial peak in the early 1920s when it was a railroad and lumber industry center. But the Great Northern moved its Leavenworth activities farther east to the much larger town of Wenatchee and the timber business in the area began a slow decline. When I was young I occasionally passed through Leavenworth via car or "milk train" (a passenger train that would stop at nearly every available station along a route -- very slow travel, and very boring for a kid). Nothing much there. Just a few two and three-story brick buildings dating to the turn of the century surrounded by smaller, wooden ones. The main reasons for stopping (if driving) were to fill a stomach or a gas tank. The situation was getting dire by the early 1960s with population declining and businesses failing. What to do? One local booster offered Solvang, California as a model. Solvang was settled by Danes and its business district buildings follow a Danish architectural theme. Many businesses are also Danish-themed. Leavenworth is right next to some fairly tall mountains, lying as it does on the eastern slope of the Cascades. So a Danish theme was ruled out by the topography. The pretty obvious solution? Go Alpine. And to sharpen the focus, make it Bavarian Alpine. And that's what was done. Within a few years several business buildings were modified to mimick a Bavarian village. Moreover, the crazy scheme worked. Today Leavenworth's entire business area is "Bavarian" right down to gothic script on signs. Speaking of signs, they're mostly in an odd mix of German and English -- the English label preceded by a Der, Die or Das. This makes business sense when you consider that not many Americans understand German. Even so, you also can see supporting verbiage such as Bäkerei or Herzliche Wilkommen. On Sunday, a fancy beer wagon (sans beer, I think) was parked by the little park on the three or four block-long main drag. In the park's gazebo was an accordion player belting out German songs. The overall effect strikes me as a little hokey and forced. Few shops offer anything even remotely sophisticated, and some of the souvenir stores sell stuff that seems pretty junky. On the other hand, we found German merchandise similar to what we saw in Munich, such as cheap cuckoo clocks, that were better buys here than there when the cost off shipping stuff home from Munich stores is factored in. Leavenworth had lots of visitors this last weekend. Most... posted by Donald at July 2, 2007 | perma-link | (8) comments

Sunday, July 1, 2007

I Meet the iPhone
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- * Geeks lay hands on an iPhone and immediately pull it apart. * Michael Blowhard pays a visit to the Apple Store with cheapo Kodak digicam in hand. Quick verdict: A 10 on the gadget-Nirvana scale. The iPhone is as chic as Audrey Hepburn and as eager to entertain as James Cagney. And it has more charisma than George Clooney, Julia Roberts, Bill Clinton, and Oprah Winfrey combined. The thing that struck me as funniest during my visit was that, not only was I not alone in snapping photos and taking videos of the iPhone, most of the people doing so were using the cameras in their non-iPhone cellphones. Best, Michael UPDATE: Bringing together a lot of current themes -- YouTube, civil liberties, the ethics and legalities of photographing in public, and the ever-growing nanny state -- Reid Farmer forwards along a link to a NYTimes article reporting that the NYC Mayor's office is considering new rules restricting photography in the city's public spaces. Meddlers!... posted by Michael at July 1, 2007 | perma-link | (3) comments