Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Two Houses of Cards

Netflix recently recreated the classic English series "House of Cards." Both of these are based on the sensational novel by Michael Dobbs. The English series spanned four episodes and featured the inscrutable Ian Richardson.  The American version stars a sardonic Kevin Spacey. All of these revolve around a whip in the lower body of legislature.  The man is devious, manipulative and he is at the heart of the political order - drama and intrigue are guaranteed.

Both shows feature an interesting element: the protagonist speaking directly to the audience. This is referred to as breaking the fourth wall.  It is an element that Shakespeare and lesser authors have used over the year. It takes great writing and a fantastic actor to pull off correctly. Contrast this technique to the monologue or the voice over. The latter two are informative, but not direct; by contrast, when the protagonist speaks directly to that audience, it has a deep effect. Poor authors attempt to use this tool to manipulate their audience.  Great authors use this to draw the audience into a conspiracy with the protagonist. Even when the audience is repulsed by protagonist's actions, they can't help but feel like participants.

I chose to watch the English version first, as it was produced first.  Ian Richardson is an incredible actor. You feel the force of his presence, even on a tiny laptop screen. Some of the plot elements felt contrived or ham fisted. Those defects are entirely forgivable when you consider the arc of the whole story and the fantastic show Richardson puts on. The American version is less sure of the central character's destiny and much of the plot is revealed as twists and turn. It makes for a more suspenseful viewing experience.

The American version is great in its own right. Kevin Spacey is different than Richardson, but no less enthralling. Spacey's character is, in many ways, a weaker character than Richardson's. Spacey is fallible; Richardson is not. I found Richardson much more enjoyable to watch, but Spacey's character so much more believable.

Also adding to American version is the strength of the supporting characters. The most noticeable difference is the strength of the protagonist's wife.  In the UK version, she has a single minded and totally unexplored devotion to her husband's career   By contrast, in the American version, the wife has the same vision, but struggles with the day-to-day choices required to see it through.  Those struggles are among the most human, most intense, moments in the series. As a mere mortal, I think, just do it - make the choices that will make you happy. But she doesn't. Instead she chooses to matter.

The reporter in the American version is a stronger character. Maybe that is just the societal shift. Now, the character pushes back against the protagonist and comes off as a serious reporter.

I thought both of the shows were really fantastic and can't wait to see more.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Themes and suprises

As noted in my last post, I am revisiting the Star Trek movies.  Most of them I haven't seen for over a decade. For some strange reason Amazon Prime has almost all of them for free, except III.  Whether this is intentional (maybe you will by it) or the product of some licensing thing (somebody's royalties are too high for them to just swallow the cost as part of the prime service) is unclear to me.  Ultimately, it doesn't matter. It does, however, mean that my foray through my cinematic childhood had to skip a step ahead to Star Trek IV: the Voyage Home. Of the movies I have revisited, this one is the strongest.  It has some of the alien mystery of the Motion Picture, without being tedious; and it has some of the action of the second movie, without all of the bravado and machismo that made that installment a little too over the top. Anyways, there is a lot going on in this movie, more than I actually want to write about, but I would like to note some of the most prominent aspects: the role of time travel, the role of Chekov's nationality (wink), and the appearance of environmentalism in this genre.

To my knowledge (which is far from complete), this is the first appearance of time travel in the Star Trek franchise.  This provides rich soil for subsequent installments of the franchise to re-till. In all of the instances that I am am familiar with, time travel is a vehicle for the show's creators to provide overt social commentary on the contemporary events of their audience, through the utopian foil of humanity in the 23rd century. This is obviously a blunt instrument. This movie provides a pithy, but incisive, commentary on the practice from Spock. Kirk wants whale from the 20th century to save earth of the 23rd century (where whales are extinct due to excessive whaling in previous centuries). Spock mind-melds with the whales. Kirk asks him why. In Spock's reply to this question, we see the inherent flaw: just because technology has advanced and humans get along with each other does not mean that the inherent egocentrism of humanity has been eradicated. Namely, Kirk - like the whaler's in the 20th century - wants the whales for their value as a resource, without any regard to the wants and needs of the whale itself. Despite this flaw, I do love the humorous situations these situations set up.

Speaking of the humor of time travel, I did enjoy the repeated use of Checkov's nationality as comedic relief. For people of my generation, who never lived during the nuclear tensions of the cold war, these scenes are probably not that meaningful.  One of the jokes is that Checkov is on the streets of San Fransisco, asking for directions to the nuclear vessels at the Alameda Naval Yard. This is funny because it highlights the ignorance of these technologically advanced visitors from the future.  Another level down, this joke is more meaningful. The movie came out in 1986, one year after Gorachev began his leadership of the Soviet Union. While Gorbachev was pursuing a deescalation of tensions in the international arena, Hollywood - and by extension the viewing public - had become so comfortable with the constant state of nuclear standoff that this could be a joke.

Star Trek is, in a way, a genre defying effort. That said, it can be painted with a broad brush as an adventure movie. It can, alternatively, be described as a science fiction movie. Why is this important?  Normally it isn't.  In this instance, I was struck by the overtly environmentalist message of the movie. The central conflict of the movie arose from a lack of biodiversity on earth, caused by over-harvesting and environmental contamination. The flick is a strong condemnation of the route we are on now (well, really the course folks were on in 1986). This is impressive  as many flicks in either of these genres don't feature anything like this. Can you imagine Pirates of the Caribbean taking a stand like that? In any event, the movie is still disappointing on this front. While the condemnation is strong, the call to action is hedged. The conclusion of the movie relies on the futuristic technologies of Star Fleet to save the whales. While this doesn't explicitly advocate for deferred action, but it does show it as a viable alternative to immediate action. At the end of the day, this facet of the movie was a huge disappointment.

All-in-all I thought the movie was solid. Actually, it was more than solid, it advanced the franchise into a new area and tackled an issue (environmentalism) that was/is often neglected in motion pictures. I would note that children's  media does, by contrast, provide a lot of environmental messages, at this time.  For example: Free Willy and Captain Planet come to mind immediately.  They, however, are not major motion pictures sold to adults (voters and consumers). Children's media is paid for by people with an interest in the future (they have kids for goodness sake), adult productions don't have that inherent marke, so I think this writing choice was substantial and meaningful.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Star Trek revisited

I was a huge Science Fiction fan as a child.  Shocking, right?  An awkward endurance athlete who enjoys a fantasy world for misfits, so original that it defies explanation.  For a time I ran from the science fiction genre that I grew up with.  Recently, I have revisited it. Some of this has been enjoyable, other aspects have been disappointing  I am focusing on the original Star Trek movies for today's post.  I may, in time, revisit some of the other diversions of my youth and today.

Recently, I watched both Star Trek: the Motion Picture and Star Trek: the Wrath of Khan.  After watching the first, I couldn't believe that the franchise even continued. In some ways, the Motion Picture is true to the spirit of discovery that Star Fleet is supposed to embody.  While this is noble, it does not make for great entertainment. The special effects were beyond kitch and the acting was so over the top in contrast to how two dimensional the characters are.  I actually had a hard time watching it straight through.

So, I was pleasantly surprised when I sat down to watch the Wrath of Khan. Some of the same themes are present: aging, a person's proper role in the world, what is means to make decisions affecting the life and death of others, and - of course- the responsibilities of command. The treatment that each of these facets receives is ten fold richer in this installment than in the previous. The movie features allusions to "a Tale of Two Cities" and is bookended by the opening line (the best of times, the worst of time) and the famous last words "(it is a far, far better thing I do today than I have ever done before").  Kirk leads an inexperienced crew into a situation where an awesome weapon could fall into the hands of a madman.  There is a brief, although incomplete and partially disappointing, discussion of what it means to create technology with the manifest ability to end all life.  Are the potential benefits of this technology worth the catastrophic damage it could wreak, if it fell into the wrong hands? This question is pending while Kirk fights it out with his old enemy.  Rather than answer this larger than life question, the movie distracts us with the putative death of Spock.  While Spock's fate is resolved in the following installment, the question is left for the viewer to ponder.  I can only imagine that this is a thinly veiled reference to the ethical, moral, environmental, and philosophical questions surrounding the use of atomic energy and its weaponization. Apparently, the 23rd century doesn't hold clearer answers to these questions than the 21st.

Another prevalent theme in this movie is the burden of command, death, and the possibility of a no win scenario. This is introduced in the opening scene of the movie, where Lt. Savvik conns the Enterprise through the Kobashi Maru simulation a test designed to test the participant's ability to confront a no win scenario. She loses the ship and the crew, as the simulator is designed to do.  She is baffled and claims to have never considered a no win scenario, neither, apparently, had Kirk. The closing act of the movie presenta  similar scenario: where the Enterprise will be destroyed for a lack of engine speed. Ultimately, no human can stabilize the engine, as the environment is too toxic and there is not enough time to purge the environment  Here, the only person who might be able to stabilize the engine is Spock, but he will surely die of toxicity, although he may save the rest of the crew.  The choice is this: either the whole crew surely dies or the crew might die and Spock will certainly die. Spock chooses the logical thing.  We might call it bravery, but that isn't how it is framed.

Kirk is rocked by Spock's death.  He, Kirk, has never actually lost.  Sure, lots of extras died on away missions, but nobody from the cast ever died before. The emotion here is warranted (unlike so many other scenes where Shatner overacts his booty off) and it does feel genuine.

This movie drops the exploration and the unknown in favor of a good old-fashioned grudge match.  Mano-a-mano two captains risk their lives, their ships and their crews to settle a score.  There is suspense and fighting - what more could a boy want?

Monday, March 4, 2013

Resplendant in Green

It doesn't happen all the time; but occasionally, sport moves you - deep in your soul.

This past weekend, I had one of those moments. I saw Rose Long, someone anyone would be proud to know, get back in the mix of things.  Suffice it to say: she was in it; something very bad happened; she was out for a long time.

Now she is back.

Sport is hard. It takes the every ounce our body and soul can give. It doesn't take excuses and it doesn't care where you have been. All it cares about is what you can do today.

We all want to see those who struggle find success. We all want the underdog to come up with the big come-from-behind win, but we all know it probably won't happen.  That is why it is so great to see Rose, gritting her teeth, going for glory, and—despite the storms she has weathered—succeed

Welcome back, Rose!

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Justice Thomas

The man gets a hard time in the press for not posing questions durring oral arguments.  Liberals think he is a stooge. I have always thought this is overblown. After watching this, it would be hard to buy into those criticisms. Here is a great interview he did.  I found his remarks on disagreeing heartening.  They came at about 20:00.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Chasing Ice

This clip is fantastic.  Right now, it doesn't look like the film is coming to Vermont, but even this is a good watch.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Books and Reading

Hi all,

I spoke with a couple people about a several books over this past weekend.  If you don't care, don't bother reading or replying to the email.

Fun and Fast:
- "A Stranger in the Kingdom" by Frank Howard Mosher (This work offers a fantastic perspective on rural life in Vermont as well as racism.)
-"Disappearances" by Frank Howard Mosher (Rural Vermont life that features tall tale in the time of prohibition.
-"A Man Without a Country" by Kurt Vonnegut (Many consider this to be the closest thing Vonnegut ever wrote to an autobiography.  For that reason alone it is well worth a read)
-Journey to the Center of the Earth by Jewels Verne (Obviously awesome)
-Around the World in Eighty Days by Jewels Verne
-20,000 Leagues Under the Sea by Jewels Verne
-"The Count of Monte Cristo" by Alexandre Dumas (a magnificent journey through the human experience of a wronged man. The work contains a fair amount of revenge and reflection)
-"A Day no Pigs Would Die" by Robert Newton Peck  (Depression era coming of age story about a farmer's son in Vermont)
-"A Part of the Sky" by Robert Newton Peck (This is the sequel to the previously listed book)
-"Call of the Wild" by Jack London
-"White Fang" by Jack London

Short Stories
-"To Build a Fire" by Jack London
-"Late Great Works of Leo Tolstoy"  This is a two volume set. It is one of my prized possessions.

General Recommendations
- Anything by Isaac Asimov.  (I probably wouldn't recommend reading everything he wrote, but taking in the Three Laws of Robotics is worthwhile).
-A Study in Scarlet; The Hound of the Baskervilles; Adventures of Sherlock Holmes; The Return of Sherlock Holmes all by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (Modern readers will probably be surprised by the similarities to CSI, some of the incredible stereotyping that Holmes undertakes, and the incredible take on Mormonism)

-The Dexter series  (After the first book the written series radically departs from the TV series and is well worth reading.  Despite the appearance of light and air writing, I believe that the writing is actually well thought out and very good).
- The Flashman Series (a comedic series based on the fictitious exploits of a victorian era british soldier)
-Joe Gunther Series by Archer Mayor (Vermont author that writes in the procedural crime genre)

-The Girl with the Dragon Tatoo series by Steig Larson

-The D'Artagnan Romances: The Three Musketeers; Twenty Years After; The Vicomte du Bragelonne; The Man in the Iron Mask by Alexandre Dumas (all of these are super fun reads.  None of the language is overly complex, but some may find his storytelling overly descriptive.)

- The Ender's Game series by Orson Scott Card. (Child warriors provide a constant sourcing of fascination for many.  There are also themes of bullying, manipulation and family.  The setting is futuristic and lush)
Structural knowledge:
-Eats Shoots and Leaves by Lynn Truss (Comedic outlook on punctuation in modern english)
-How to Write a Sentence by Stanley Fish (seriously)

Thought provoking and entertaining:
-White Teeth by Zadie Smith  (She has more fantasticly evokative sentences in this book than I could hope to write in a lifetime)
-Dead Souls by Nikolia Gogol (Gogol is often called the father of Russian literature and rightfully so. I don't think that it is particularly hard to get through and is a great introduction to Russian literature)
-Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand  (Most folks who have selected UVM for their undergraduate education will find many of the ideas she espouses to be absurd.  However, I think that Rand provide one of the few truly thoughtful, moral defense of capital; whereas, there is a sea of articulate capitalist discontents.)
-"Slaughter House Five by Kurt Vonnegut (Written based on Vonnegut's life experience as a GI durring the firebombing of Dresden.  If you are not familiar with that period of history, it is worth a read.  Vonnegut's perspective on the human experience at a time when humanity is no where to be found is humorous and simultaneously chilling)
-"Cat's Cradle" by Kurt Vonnegut (Vonnegut interviewed real GE scientists to build the foundation of this novel. The book tackles humanity's ability to destroy itself.)
-"Siren of Titan" by Kurt Vonnegut (a perspective on the ability of man to equalize the inequities visited upon each of us by the incident of our birth)
-"The Corrections by Jonathan Frazen (Age, society, madness, perfection and rigid family structure are all served up in this work.  
-"Freedom by Jonathan Frazen (After reading this book I concluded that Frazen was the best American author of the last century.  He successfully wrote the book that every post modernest dreams of writing: the story of moral ambiguity and try to get by.
-To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee (I am sure you all had to read this at one point in your life, but it is worth re-reading.   I try to make a point of reading it yearly.  The concepts of fairness and equality throughout the book take on different forms as your perspective as a reader shifts with age and experience.)
-Walden by Henry David Thoreau (The first section on economy is only worth reading once you have read the rest of the work.)
-The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera (A beautiful story about the transformation of a country and the lives within.  The book is functioning on several different levels simultaneously and occasionally permits interplay between the levels.)
-The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Chabron (A tragic and adventurous novel that relates the story of a comic book writer who escaped Nazi Germany)
-Maus by Art Speigleman (A graphic novel relating the author's father's experiences during the Holocaust.  I am sure that Forrest could tell you more about it.  I always found the imagery of different animals for each of the different classes of people to be especially interesting)
-Night by Eli Wisel (Fantastic)
-Native Son by Richard Wright
-Black Boy by Richard Wright
-Pagan Spain by Richard Wright
-The Septembers of Shiraz by Dalia Sopher (Fantastic look at the revolutionary culture in Iran immediately following the revolution through the eyes of a young Jewish girl)
-War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy 
-Anna Karinina by Leo Tolstoy

Ultra heady
-When Affirmative Action was White  (This book examines the impact of the GI bill and the relative ability for African Americans and Caucasians to gain access to education and equity)
-Black Trials  (This is a series of historical / poli sci studies of the leading trials featuring race throughout American history)
-Discipline and Punish by Michel Foucault  (This is a fantastic study of devices of  societal control)
-Madness and Civilization by Michel Foucaoult  (After reading this it is hard to think about medication and hospitalization in the same way)
-A History of Sexuality by Michel Foucault
-Two Treatise by John Locke (only the second one is worth reading. The foundational generation of this country relied heavily on this man's thoughts.  There reliance in turn shaped many of our societal institutions, so it is worth working through).
-American Foreign Policy by William Appleman Williams (A crucial piece of writing to understanding the role the United States plays in the world today).
-Milestones by Sayyid Qutb (There are a million different spellings for this man's name.   Often this work is cited as the seminal intelectual work of pan-muslim radicalism. It has been banned in several countries over the years.) 
-The Irony of American History by Rienhold Niebuhr (The preeminent american theologist of the twentieth century. He grappled with America's post WWII role in the world)
-Faith and History by Rienhold Niebuhr
-The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness by Rienhold Niebuhr
-The New Jim Crow (I picked this up but haven't been able to read it yet.  Everybody is talking about what Michelle Alexander wrote, so I think that it is worth reading)
-The Way we Vote by Alec Ewald (I took a bunch of classes with Professor Ewald and think very highly of him.  I found his book to be very good and believe it is accessible to someone without specific education in the area.)