From the archives: March 2005

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No matter what the future brings

Tuesday, 29 March 2005 — 9:04pm | Film

It’s three months into the calendar year, but the roster of films I already know I intend to see in 2005 has changed remarkably little since I first promised one a month ago. Of course, in my mind, the movie season is not officially underway until Sin City opens later this week, but then again, I have yet to catch Robots, and I still owe a Constantine review.

I’ll preface this by saying that “tentpole” pictures aside, it is usually hard to point out most of the films that will end up among the year’s best even in March. Aside from the big franchises, adaptations and years-in-the-making pet projects by high-profile directors, films worth getting excited about have developed a tendency to come out of the gates in November and December, preceded only by the buzz of the festival circuit and critical preview screenings no more than a month or two in advance. On the other end of the spectrum are films that get marked on the calendar years in advance; Cars and Watchmen are already sitting pretty atop my list for 2006, and there’s a certain release this year that has blocked off a weekend in May since it was officially announced in 1997.

Without further ado, let us proceed categorically.

Star Wars: It would be inaccurate to call Revenge of the Sith (19 May) the movie I’ve been dying to see. It is, properly, the movie I’ve been living to see. This is the film I have been waiting for ever since I started reading and writing about cinema all those years ago when the Prequels were just making it to the drawing board and nobody had any idea what to expect. This is the episode that will lay all the speculation to rest. This is the episode that binds the galaxy together. This is it, and it’s here in less than two months.

Big films by big directors: The biggest of them all is the last one on the release calendar, and that is Peter Jackson’s real dream project, King Kong (14 December). We already know what happened with his runner-up.

Before that, we have the most interesting traditional battle epic in sight, Ridley Scott’s Crusades picture Kingdom of Heaven (6 May). After putting up with several years of cheap imitators (and even failed expensive imitators that may or may not go by the name of Oliver Stone) trying to make their own Gladiator, I’m enthralled to see Scott come back and show them how it’s done – with an ambitious backdrop that has largely been unexplored, to boot.

Then there’s Ron Howard’s latest collaboration with Russell Crowe, the Jim Braddock bio-pic Cinderella Man (3 June). Yes, it’s yet another boxing movie, but yes, it looks like it could be really something. Maybe this is the personal fascination with the Depression era talking, or just an acknowledgment that Crowe is one of the finest actors this generation, and Howard is a good match for him.

Invasion of the literary nerds: Four major classics of the fantasy/sci-fi canon are coming to film this year, and one can only hope they all live up to their namesakes. First down the pipeline is The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (29 April), which is this year’s The Phantom of the Opera in the sense that it has taken far, far too long to get here. But it is arriving at last, and while director Garth Jennings is a big question mark, at least the project is no longer in the hands of Jay Roach. Stephen Fry (the Guide), Warwick Davis (Marvin) and Alan Rickman (Marvin’s voice) are feats of perfect casting, The Vogons are positively full of, um, Vogonity. The trailers make the film look great, though hopefully it will stay true to the Britishness and wit of the source material. As far as actual point-by-point consistency with the book goes, one should expect nothing; even Douglas Adams contradicted himself constantly in every iteration of the story.

Steven Spielberg continues his whirlwind comeback tour of every nook and cranny of science fiction with War of the Worlds (29 June), starring Tom Cruise and penned by Jurassic Park screenwriter David Koepp. The contemporary take on H.G. Wells appears only loosely related to the novel, but it’s Spielberg doing an alien invasion movie – interestingly, the only kind of alien movie he hasn’t done.

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (18 November) is a mixed bag of hype. As the book with the scenes that are most easily imaginable and translatable to pictures, be it the Quidditch World Cup, the Triwizard tasks or the cemetary showdown, it is one to see on opening day. But while director Mike Newell is sufficiently British, he still needs to convince me that he is capable of tackling something of this scope. The worst thing the franchise can do at this point is to turn away from Cuaron’s laudable visual overhauls in The Prisoner of Azkaban, yet it is doing exactly that with the costumes and effects.

Shrek director Andrew Adamson is more immediately convincing as the right man for The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (9 December), especially when you consider that also attached to the project are composer Harry Gregson-Williams (Chicken Run and Shrek), Richard Taylor’s WETA dream team (fresh off The Lord of the Rings), and Tilda Swinton as the White Witch. This is a formula for enchantment if I ever saw one.

Comic books: There are three coming out this year that have really piqued my interest, and none of them are associated with Marvel. All of them, to some extent, represent a certain maturation in comic book adaptations to film. The first is Sin City (1 April), which already looks like the best translation of the graphic novel look to motion pictures in history, and possibly the most audacious adoption of a print aesthetic since Warren Beatty’s Dick Tracy fifteen years ago. Even the best serious graphic novel adaptations to date, however stylish, have remained first and foremost motion pictures in the traditional vein – Road to Perdition comes to mind. Sin City looks to graft several stories from Frank Miller’s noirish underworld straight to film with an all-star cast.

For all his popularity, I still think Batman has not been given a proper cinematic treatment, and Batman Begins (17 June) may be the first. Directed by Memento‘s Christopher Nolan, starring a very fitting Christian Bale as Bruce Wayne and finally featuring the Scarecrow as a screen villain, this is the Warner/DC response to Marvel’s recent success in capturing the superhero mystique. It is a necessary and long-overdue reset of how the franchise has traditionally been treated. The one real concern, if it can be called that, is that Sin City makes Batman Begins look so standard and safe. The comparison is less than superficial, since Frank Miller practically created the modern conception of the character in The Dark Knight Returns and went on to revive interest in the early period with Year One.

Last but not least is V For Vendetta (4 November), the next title to fly the Vertigo banner and the latest attempt to do Alan Moore justice. As I discussed in an earlier post, if James McTeigue and company stay true to the British subtleties of the original and do not deviate too far in the direction of The Matrix, we should be in for a treat.

Feature animation: CG is now the talk of the town, but the most exciting prospects in the world of animation this year are both done in stop-motion Claymation. The biggest one to watch out for is the first Wallace & Gromit feature film, The Curse of the Wererabbit (7 October). Anyone with even a passing familiarity with Aardman Animation’s oeuvre should already be aware there is ample reason to plan the weekend around this movie. You should too.

Opening shortly before it is Tim Burton’s spiritual followup to The Nightmare Before Christmas, the early Hallowe’en treat Corpse Bride (23 September). Watch the trailer, and you will agree.

I won’t miss Madagascar (27 May), even if I am hardly a fan of the Dreamworks Animation approach. This one looks slick and stylized, and the penguins are great; and if there is any substance under the promise of fun, it would be a much-appreciated bonus. Hopefully, the topical-for-a-minute-only humour that plagued a certain attempt at a shark movie is kept to a minimum in favour of amusement that comes from the animation itself. To this end, note said penguins.

Finally there is Chicken Little (4 November), Disney’s maiden voyage into all-CG waters. I can’t say I expect this film to be any more significant than the standard offerings we are seeing from the major non-Pixar animation studios, but I really do hope it is a cut above the rest. The performance of Chicken Little is a double-edged sword in that if it succeeds, the possibility of traditional Disney animation coming back anytime soon is even more unlikely; yet if it does not succeed, then Disney’s long sickness will look all the more terminal. But on balance, I want to see a good movie.

Assuming they see release: There are two films that have already made the rounds elsewhere but, to my knowledge, have yet to reach distribution deals that will bring them to Alberta screens anytime soon. The first is Downfall (Der Untergang), Germany’s 2004 Oscar nominee for the Foreign Language award, a story of the collapse of the Third Reich from Hitler’s perspective. Awhile back, Stephen wrote a fantastic post about why this is a film to watch out for, and I see no need to repeat him further. With any luck, the arthouses will pick it up soon.

The other significant film that has only been exhibited in a limited capacity, but should really go everywhere, is Dream On Silly Dreamer, a 40-minute documentary about the death of traditional animation at Walt Disney, as told by the animators themselves. There is still surprisingly little public awareness of the tragedy that has befallen the state of American animation, and it is a story that I would like to see told. Word on the film has been overwhelmingly positive, and I want to see the results for myself.

And everything else: As I said at the beginning of this piece, the landscape will probably look completely different by summer’s end. I still have to hear more about Cameron Crowe’s Elizabethtown and Steven Spielberg’s film about the Munich Olympics (tentatively entitled Vengeance), and who knows what else will come out of the woodwork. On the release calendar, I should take note of two more films. First is Kung Fu Hustle (22 April), the latest comedy from Shaolin Soccer director/star Stephen Chow, who is one of the few directors in the world who still understands how to pull off silly slapstick that not only gets you rolling on the floor laughing yourself to tears, but without being stupid. Well, not too stupid. Unlike Shaolin Soccer‘s Stateside release, which was handled by Miramax, Hustle is being carried by Sony Pictures Classics, which consistently has the balls to release Asian films unmolested.

Buried deep in the release schedule right before the onslaught of the Galactic Empire, but not to be overlooked, is Unleashed (13 May). It is my belief that Jet Li has yet to be given the respect he deserves in English-language film as an actor, not just a fancy-schmancy kung fu guy. From what I can tell, this time around he has a chance to stretch his legs as a performer working under a story premise that is actually compelling. The film is written by Luc Besson and directed by one of his stable of proteges, though as an aside, Besson should really return to directing himself. None of the pseudo-Bessons have ever produced anything on the level of Léon (The Professional) or The Fifth Element, even though they have his style down on the surface. But even though Besson has instead chosen the path of becoming a French Jerry Bruckheimer, even Bruckheimer delegated a good film or two, and Unleashed looks promising.

And that’s a wrap. I see a preview screening of Sin City tomorrow, so hopefully I will return with comments at some point in the near future. Until then, chide me for my unintended omissions.

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How to shred the Maple Leaf

Monday, 21 March 2005 — 6:38pm | Classical, Music, Pianism

As some of you know, I played a banquet Saturday night (that being the National Debating Championships formal), accompanying Happnin’ alto and fellow debater Maria Chen. Word is that we survived the dinner performance in spite of a horribly out-of-tune B natural above middle C that forced us to work around the charts we set to sharp keys, and the precarious decision to situate my personal decorative glass of red wine on the grand when the wheels were not locked in. I can’t speak to any of this myself, as I wasn’t listening.

Later in the evening, as I took a break for dinner, some random attendee who had earlier attempted to run off with my precious Hal Leonard “Little” commandeered the piano in my place, approaching it in much the same way as Draco Malfoy would treat a Hippogryph. Now, he was hardly without skill, though a brief conversation on technique I had with him about Gershwin’s changes in “Let’s Call The Whole Thing Off” revealed him to be new to substitution. But one should remember that skill is very different from finesse, and while some finesse is bound to be lacking even for the relatively seasoned improviser – I’ll freely admit that I somewhat butchered Koji Kondo’s “athletic” Donut Plains theme from Super Mario World – there is really little excuse to throw it out the window for cheap tricks when it comes to playing something fully composed.

There is a very simple litmus test for rooting out rank amateurs who try to show off at the keys with little respect for the music they are performing, especially when that music is ragtime. This performer I speak of, whom I have yet to identify, committed the crime of trying to play “Maple Leaf Rag” as fast as he could.

I don’t see why people insist on butchering “Maple Leaf Rag” the way they do. It’s marked Tempo di marcia, but there is no end of piano hacks who play it not as a march so much as a hundred-horse cavalry charge. Well, the guns of Aqaba may face the sea, but anyone who has ever bothered to take Scott Joplin, ragtime and stride seriously is not so inattentive, and knows that ragtime is never played fast.

Observe the following tempo markings. “Elite Syncopations”: Not fast. “The Easy Winners”: Not fast. “The Entertainer” – yes, that “Entertainer”: Not fast. Joplin’s sheets to “Fig Leaf” and “Sugar Cane” carry a little box on Page 1 akin to a Surgeon General’s warning: “NOTE – Do not play this piece fast. It is never right to play ‘Ragtime’ fast.”

“Maple Leaf Rag”: For the love of all that be Good and Holy, dare I invoketh the honoured rolls of Tin Pan Alley and Preservation Hall, do not ever play this piece fast, you simple-minded irreverent blasphemous fool. Or, in other words, Tempo di marcia.

It is especially appalling that even performers who are otherwise professionals of a calibre well beyond that of my own still drag “Maple Leaf” through the mud at tempos befitting the Autobahn for a spurt of cheap amateur showmanship. Over the summer, I saw the keyboard player in a band performing on as prestigious a jazz-tourist destination as the Mississippi steamship Natchez do the exact same thing. Technically, he was a talented performer with a good sense of syncopated rhythm who had huge hands that graced progressive tenths with ease. I think he was blind, too, but I’m not sure. But for goodness’ sake, that is not by any means a license to play ragtime as fast as you can.

Maybe it comes of how most people are exposed to ragtime in the form of ice cream delivery vehicle jingles and cellular telephone ringtones, but I do not presume to know the origin of this tragically widespread interpretation. Now, I’m not one to commit the intentional fallacy and say that ragtime shouldn’t be played fast because Joplin said so, but I am one to say that to a literate musician, it sounds like ass. There are pieces that you can play as fast as you can to show off to your friends – “burner” swings like Ellington’s “Take the ‘A’ Train” and Kondo’s “athletic” Donut Plains theme from Super Mario World. “Maple Leaf Rag” is not one of these pieces.

The tournament itself was fantastically run by the organizers behind the curtains, and they have really done the club proud. After adjudicating one round I was pulled into a swing team (which, in debate lingo, is a placeholder team to even out odd numbers) with Dan Sirbu, who had never done a Canadian Parliamentary tournament before. After cleaning up in the first two rounds, we dropped like rocks in the other four. I think it was a positive experience for my partner, though; it’s not every day that a complete novice gets the beneficial learning experience of being creamed, eviscerated, and totally wiped out by Jo Nairn and Ren in the later bracketed rounds of a competition. And I say that in earnest, as nothing drives you to improve so much as being done in by the best of the lot.

Congratulations to Mike Kotrly and Rahool Agarwal, who won the tournament this year after a second-place finish apiece in the last two Nationals. Mikey I’ve talked about, but Rahool was also someone I was quite glad to see win. Yesterday, he definitely slowed down from the rapid-fire rhetoric he used to display, but he remained as analytically thorough as ever. Rahool was on his way out of Alberta in my novice year, and much of the values and debating philosophies to which I subscribe bear traces of his influence. For such an accomplished orator who was well aware of the distinction between good and bad debate and never hesitated to point it out, he was always eager to train us newcomers. It’s been a long road to the title, but he earned it.

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V.F.D. For Vendetta

Thursday, 17 March 2005 — 7:21pm | Adaptations, Comics, Film, Literature, Michael Chabon

One of the films I will mention in my forthcoming mega-post on the films to watch out for in 2005 – when it comes – is the adaptation of the graphic novel V For Vendetta by Alan Moore and David Lloyd. If you have never read the original work, I highly recommend that you do so. While it’s no Watchmen – and let’s be honest, what comic book is? – it’s definitely a cut above the norm, and deviates enough from the typical Orwellian future-fascist clichés to be interesting. It has, with good reason, inspired many a serious academic study of its aesthetic and literary content – here, for instance, or here.

As much of a neat little gimmick as it is to target the release of the film for the weekend of Guy Fawkes Day (“Remember, remember the Fifth of November”), I do wonder if it is really that wise an idea to rush the production schedule to meet it. It has a lineup to dream of, with Natalie Portman as Evey Hammond and James McTeigue in the director’s chair. McTeigue is untried, but given his background as an Assistant Director under both the Wachowskis in The Matrix and George Lucas in the Prequels, I have faith in the guy, so long as he doesn’t let too many Wachowski fingerprints get all over his work. That is appropriate for some dystopian movies about post-apocalyptic fascists that rule over a complacent populace, but it would not necessarily be a good fit here.

My big concern – and the major question mark that hovers over the otherwise perfect casting of Natalie Portman – is that the film may lose some of the Britishness of the original source, which I think needs to be retained. Alan Moore is arguably the best living scriptwriter in the comics business, and his work is long overdue for some cinematic respect, especially after the disaster that was The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.

Hopefully the film captures some of the more ingenious motifs, both visual and poetic, that lie in Moore’s book. The commodification of Fate and Justice as artificial feminine personifications that cheat on society and the powers that be is of particular note, as is the marvelous sequence in the third act when V, the anarchistic Guy Fawkes figure around whom the story revolves, conducts the destruction of the fascist regime’s power structures to the cannon-fire of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture. As Robert Rodriguez will hopefully demonstrate with Sin City, which looks incredible, why reinvent the wheel when the original comic has already provided so much in the way of aesthetic guidance?

On the other side of the literary world lies Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events, which is an almost entirely linguistic experience aside from the great Helquist illustrations and the tag that follows every book offering clues as to the next one. I have now finished all eleven published books, and the series is due to conclude in the thirteenth volume. My original impression after reading the first three, if you will recollect, was that this was a series that dropped plot and story in favour of being very clever about the telling thereof. Well, that changes quite significantly as one progresses, and from about the fifth or sixth volume onwards, it becomes masterful episodic fiction in the serial tradition, with each successive adventure posing riddles that are answered with even more baffling oddities in the next one, capitalizing on everything that has come before. Even given how the author continues to unify each book with a set of idioms or literary devices that he deconstructs with scalpel precision, the series has shifted to the point where the unanswered mysteries in the plot are what generate anticipation for the next entry to come.

I must also admit a total agreement with the axis of good and evil that emerges as the series progresses. Every book has a library motif, and one of the characters in The Slippery Slope (whose identity I will not reveal) comes right out and says that well-read individuals are bound to be the good guys. All the decent people in the books respect knowledge, and amidst all the sobering melancholy in the series, one that explicitly deals with terrible things happening to undeserving innocent children, we see the promotion of what I think is a critical, yet oft-ignored value.

The antithesis of the printed page, and the mark of the enemy, is fire. When the villains employ fire, the tragic loss is always not so much material as it is a loss of knowledge. It’s an axis of conflict you don’t see every day, and certainly not in something promoted as children’s fiction.

Fiction is created, marketed and sold in a way that is completely different from the movie business. Book launches, Harry Potter aside, don’t have anything approaching the opening-weekend culture of movies that saw a revival after The Phantom Menace and reached its peak in the summer of 2001. It should really come as no surprise, then, that my most anticipated works of fiction to be published this calendar year are almost entirely sequels. Couple that with the fact that I have enough classic literature from years past to discover, and this list pales in comparison to what I can say about movies.

With that said, I want to make special mention of the four books coming out in 2005 that I intend to buy the moment they hit stores. Book the Twelfth of the Lemony Snicket series is one. Artemis Fowl: The Opal Deception, which arrives 3 May, is another; I much enjoyed the first three, and this one promises to build on the dangling threads of the second whilst balancing them with the bittersweet ending of the third. Then there’s Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, and its inclusion here should be obvious.

Not so obvious is the one non-sequel I already have marked down on my calendar, even considering that it does not have a hard release date beyond a vague promise of delivery in October (though its entry now indicates a delay until 6 March, 2006). This would be Michael Chabon’s next novel, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, his first big piece since The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay after having taken a break with the children’s baseball fantasy Summerland and the Sherlock Holmes tribute The Final Solution.

Chabon, as longtime devotees of this journal should be aware, is a literary wunderkind and one of my favourite novelists of all time. Not only does he write prose that can only be described as beautiful, he somehow never manages to let it overpower the stories underneath; and oh, what amazing stories he tells. All I know about The Yiddish Policemen’s Union is that it is apparently an alternate-history novel about a Jewish state established in what we know as Alaska, and I’m already dying to see where he goes with this.

I will finish this post with yet another empty promise of a detailed, extended orgasmic reaction to the new footage of Revenge of the Sith, and pop in an unrelated link or two. The first is an excellent Jim Hill feature article on Eric Idle’s new Broadway production, Spamalot. The second is an obscure, but surreal recording that fittingly, you can only order on the Internet; you know the sort. Or do you? I speak, after all, of The Rap Canterbury Tales. Its inclusion in one of my classes today made that particular course (English 300, “Social and Cultural History of the English Language”) all the more fun in a strange, delightful way. It is, after all, the same course where a recommended reading for an upcoming paper is Going Nucular, a book by Geoff Nunberg of Language Log fame.

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Heliotropology, conspiratorial schemata and throwing eggs at Shy Guys

Wednesday, 16 March 2005 — 10:34pm | Literature, Studentpolitik, Video games

Not much in the way of positive, uplifting news this week in the world of people who play chess a lot better than all of us combined ever will. First Kasparaov retires – though mind you, there really is no better guy to spearhead the effort to cut Putin down to size, and devoting more of his energy to it isn’t a bad thing – and now Japan has ruled that Bobby Fischer will be deported back to America. While I’ll admit that Fischer has become a bit of a loon in recent years, this is doing nothing to help, and the grounds for his criminality – that his 1992 rematch with Spassky was an economic activity that violated sanctions on Yugoslavia – remain absolutely preposterous. I suppose this is the kind of thing that happens when you mess with a bona fide genius, no pun intended.

In other news, yesterday’s Gateway had a terrific crop of letters, one of which said exactly what I’ve been trying to say for days, but better and in fewer words. Megan Grieve wrote:

I myself voted for Mustafa. He seemed to have an intelligent and serious platform but, most importantly, he seemed to want the position for the right reasons. Lettner’s platform, that repeatedly mentioned the Powerplant, seemed more suited to someone running for VP (Student Life).

Lettner seemed to take the whole election as a joke, and the only time I heard him speak was at the candidate forum in which his entire speech consisted of an unamusing frozen (as in tuition) metaphor. If I wanted a joke candidate, I would have voted for Spanky. Yet it was met with a resounding cheer from the audience and now he’s our new president – I don’t understand.

I could not agree more, though for my part, I found Lettner’s speech amusing – as a speech alone, that is, and not in context of the Myer forum where it was delivered, and where I was hoping to hear some real ideas. Be that as it may, Lettner still has a year ahead of him to do something useful with the organization, and in spite of some massive turnover we may have some decent Councilors to keep him in check. The best part of the letter is that nobody has any idea who the writer is. Informed normal students exist! Now, if only we could apply the same principles to ferret out the extraterrestrials.

And while on the subject of extraterrestrials, I want to digress for a moment and make some brief observations on various works of literature I have delved into of late.

Edgar Rice Burroughs is an interesting fellow, in that it is difficult to pinpoint exactly where he stands when it comes to imperialism and the White Man’s Burden in all its assorted flavours. On one hand, the worldview he exhibits is clearly one that divides the world into people who are savage brutes and people who aren’t. In A Princess of Mars, the difference between the two is that the former has a capacity for love and compassion. It opens with John Carter fleeing a band of Indians, who are naturally a posse of uncivilized cowboy-hunters. Where it gets interesting, though, is when he ends up on Mars and falls in with the Green Men of Thark, a brutish tribe of warriors for whom killing is acceptable so long as you triumph over your foe and seize his rank and possessions, laughter is a mark of delight in the suffering of others, and the bonds of family extend only to dumping your kids in a public incubator for five years until they hatch. In a telling scene, our protagonistic Gentleman of Virginia tames their ravenous beasts of war with a display of his teeming love and empathy. The message here is less than subtle.

Naturally, they are an ugly people with green skin and eyes in weird places. In contrast, the peaceful, scientific red-skinned people of the Kingdom of Helium are a more human sort, and even perform the courtesy of providing the requisite beautiful princess to be rescued. Put all of this together, and it seems like a matter of black and white: Helium is civilized, Thark is not. Bad Thark!

At least, that’s how it seems, until a number of other considerations come into play. Thark is not an undeveloped society; in fact, it evolved into a Spartan warrior state, and one that acts as a colonizer, not the colonized. Moreover, John Carter ultimately fights not the Tharks, but the Zodangans, a society that one could judge to be “civilized” along the same axis, because the Zodangan prince was betrothed to the titular princess, Dejah Thoris. The Tharks, as a loveless society, have no familial construct, yet it is precisely by the presence of kinship laws that Zodanga falls. And as we all know, chivalric romance reduces to nuptial law in the last instance.

The other joke, though whether we are laughing with Burroughs or at him is indeterminate, is that the Tharks are an exact representation of everything that Nietzsche says human beings are: animals that thrive on bloodlust and take pleasure in the suffering of others. Thark is humanity in its uncensored form. Its people differ from all others in that they see no need to justify revenge by calling it retributive justice, or validate bonds of economic gain with artificial constructions of love and marriage. As a society without guilt, it needs no social structures or deities for the sake of absolution. But over in Zodanga, the pillars of civilization – nuptial law in particular – becomes that civilization’s undoing. So who, or what, is the enemy? Maybe the very act of colonizing is to remake the enemy as a friend.

This is, after all, the same author who presented the inversion of having apes civilize a Greystoke of noble birth and raise him as one of their own. I would say more, but I have never read Tarzan of the Apes and have no idea how it ends.

I also wish to say a few words about Foucault’s Pendulum by Umberto Eco, as it begs – indeed, it grovels on its trembling knees – for a comparative study alongside The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown (which, now that I think about it, should have borne the far catchier and more grammatically sensible moniker The Code Da Vinci).

The two cover a lot of similar ground in trying to play connect-the-dots with occult history’s greatest hits and presenting it as a Rembrandt of a grand conspiracy, but aside from the prominence of Templars, Merovingians, and Rosicrucians (oh my!) they reside on opposite poles of the literary globe. They share a core, but they never see nor talk to each other, and probably shouldn’t lest there be the outbreak of nuclear war. It would be unfair to evaluate them by relative merit, since they lie on mutually isolated spectral planes, and it may give one the false impression that Foucault’s Pendulum is itself the life-changing masterpiece that Da Vinci wanted to be. It’s not; while it is full of fascinating ideas and delightfully obscure allusions (including some to Casablanca), the story itself isn’t a whole lot of fun. Unlike Da Vinci, which is admittedly a lot of fun in a guilty way until you step back and realize how stupid it is sometimes, there are no murderous albino henchvillains in sight.

What really shows upon juxtaposition, though, is that Eco is a card-carrying professor of semiotics while Brown doesn’t understand the first thing about signs and interpretation, yet somehow miraculously landed a job teaching kids English. It has allowed me to identify another major irritation about The Da Vinci Code beyond just its abuse of the language, and put this irritation in words. To be succinct, what I mean to say is this: Robert Langdon has no business being a professor of symbology, and even by high school teacher standards, Brown doesn’t have a clue about what it means to read symbolism.

The Da Vinci Code is an exercise in interpreting symbols and mistaking that interpretation for truth. In doing so, it reduces signs and images to correspondent representations that somehow map quite neatly to the things they signify, as if you could look them up in a dime-store book on the twelve uses of dragon’s blood like that taxi-driving kid in Constantine. Eco knows better: his story is one that explicitly makes fun of people who confuse interpretation with the revelation of an absolute reality. In it, Casaubon and Belbo create a reality out of a grand interpretation, which is what signs actually do, only the joke’s on them when it actually works. Symbols don’t just sit around and symbolize things. If Robert Langdon were really a credible symbologist, he would be aware of this. Then again, this is the same book where a professional cryptologist fumbles her way through something as elementary as the Fibonacci sequence, which schoolchildren could probably spot even if they don’t know its name.

And this is why it is so amusing when people mistake The Da Vinci Code as some grand revelation (and sometimes even write books to debunk it lest people be led astray), or when readers on my side of the fence claim the reason they don’t like The Da Vinci Code is because so much of it is made up. Last time I checked, you were allowed to make things up in a work of fiction. The problem with Dan Brown is not that he doesn’t know what truth is, but that he doesn’t even know how to get to truth. In this respect, Foucault’s Pendulum made fun of Dan Brown a decade and a half in advance, only nobody noticed. I venture that most people who pick up Eco’s tome either drown in the stormy sea of allusions or put it down after seeing that it hardly goes anywhere in the first three hundred pages, which is right before it starts its engines and becomes a really good read.

It all comes down to the conception of what conspiracy theories are and how they work. I would say that as is the case in Eco, conspiracies are not the discrete data points, but the connections themselves; moreover, the connections don’t become true by way of logical validity alone. They become true when they are accepted as truth, which, as Fox Mulder says, is out there.

Let’s save V For Vendetta and my completion of the Lemony Snicket series for a future posts. They deserve a space of their own.

On a final tangent, I want to say a few words of praise for a little game for the Nintendo DS called Yoshi’s Touch & Go. It’s phenomenal, and I think Nintendo has stumbled upon the core mechanic for the “stylus platformer” out of all the concepts they first displayed in the mini-games bundled with Super Mario 64 DS. Touch & Go is not the Super Mario Bros. of the touchscreen and certainly no Yoshi’s Island, but that is because instead of real levels, it presents tests of precision, speed and endurance over a randomly iterated course that you play for high scores.

One can only hope that Kirby’s Magic Paintbrush builds on this mechanic and adds to it the element of adventure that comes from meticulous level design. But for now, it’s games like this one that really justify the investment that is the DS and show off what it is capable of, not from a technical perspective, but from an interactive perspective. I also find it encouraging that in spite of how it can pull off N64-quality graphics, the DS still manages to foster traditional 2D design. Viewtiful Joe aside, 2D design has been unfairly neglected by the technically-oriented home console arena.

I also realize I promised in my last post that I would be getting to gushing over the Episode III trailer right away. I’ll get to that.

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How do you make the lion roar?

Friday, 11 March 2005 — 1:26pm | Video games

I echo what Carter asks Mysterioso in Carter Beats the Devil, but here I direct my question to Nintendo instead. It concerns their wireless networking plan, which I briefly discussed in this post. As it turns out, I should have waited for the full transcript of the Iwata keynote, as it appears some of my questions have already been answered.

Quoth Iwata-san:

Every aspect of DS is designed to be friendly to all audiences. Therefore, Wi-Fi should be easy for everyone, too. Our goal is to make this process simple and seamless. Users shouldn’t have to give it a thought. Wi-Fi connections will feel like local area network connections because they will use a common API. We will let DS owners enjoy Wi-Fi without the difficulty of entering an SSID or WEP key. And maybe most importantly, we will remove the most important consumer barrier – Nintendo’s Wi-Fi connections will be free. As I said, simple and seamless.

How? How? What dark magic has been invoked to perform this miracle? How can this happen without compromising wireless security? What of the legal implications, if any, of using neighbouring private networks as hot-spots? Has Nintendo somehow conjured some new unheard-of infrastructure? I appreciate answers from any Wi-Fi experts in the audience who are not already bound by non-disclosure agreements.

For a long time, I have perceived Wi-Fi as the one key area where Sony has an edge over Nintendo, given its in-house expertise in developing personal computers and related hardware. No evidence of this was greater than how the PSP has wireless network configuration – SSIDs and WEP keys – embedded in its firmware, whereas with the DS, Nintendo seems to have left wireless support entirely to the software end. Now it looks like Nintendo’s pulled an Apple, playing the “ease of use” card and negating its competitor’s advantage – if it delivers on its promise.

On a related note, IGN is really on the ball with their GDC coverage: here’s their preview of Animal Crossing DS, with a video attached that at one point, shows how your character can change out of the goofy horns in the original game in favour of more fashionable headwear. They also have the complete GDC keynote on video, which has not yet been banished to the infernal realm of subscriber-only content.

Lastly, I have indeed seen the outstanding trailer for Revenge of the Sith. Comments will hopefully come when a stable, high-quality version is linkable.

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A Link to the Past (older posts) »