From the archives: January 2006

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Not the soul of wit

Monday, 30 January 2006 — 10:38pm | Scrabble

Remember what I wrote in The Gateway a few weeks back? The experts agree. I’ve been validated.

Let’s go over few news items that have been simmering since Friday. So it looks like the stars decided it would be a good idea to stay in alignment, and presto – Toy Story 3 is out the window. Does anyone still have doubts about the Pixar buyout? I didn’t think so. It’s the gift that keeps on giving.

In the isolated world of obscure comic book anthologies based on Pulitzer-winning novels, Dark Horse has cancelled The Amazing Adventures of the Escapist. This is a landmark in that I now unexpectedly own every first-printing issue of a comic book series. It’s also too bad, because in the last few issues, the series was just beginning to show some of its true potential.

I haven’t mentioned how a little over a week ago, I saw the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra perform a night of sacred music with pianist Kevin Cole and Vancouver-based singer Denzal Sinclaire. By “sacred”, I mean George and Ira Gershwin, and I mean it in earnest. There’s not much to say about it aside from the fact that it was an exhilirating night with the American canon thanks to interpreters who are best described with the word clarity.

Listening to Mr. Cole dance on the keys is a lighthearted reminder that speed isn’t created by cranking up the metronome: it’s an illusion generated by what you play, and the cleanliness with which you play it. Budding pianists would do well to remember this, especially when it comes to ragtime. It’s all about control with the illusion of freedom. That’s magic, isn’t it?

As for Mr. Sinclaire, who has seen a lot of airplay on CBC for as long as I’ve listened to jazz, I’m enjoying his latest album, My One and Only Love. (The title track has been moving up and down the stuck-in-my-head playlist since the opening credits of Leaving Las Vegas.) It’s heavy on ballads of mellow disposition, but listening to him run the gamut from Hoagy Carmichael to Stevie Wonder makes it easy to place the disc in a grand tradition of song displaced by half a century. In person, Denzal was a littler guy than I expected, but mass-over-density has minimal bearing on presence when it comes to voice.

Speaking of jazz, I’ve always been a little baffled at the lack of dynamism in how jazz is filmed. I harbour a deep admiration for music videos on a purely technical level, as a person who takes pleasure in watching moving pictures for that elusive logistical how’d-they-do-that. I can’t stand to watch a lot of them, though, because generally, the music sucks. Were it not for A Hard Day’s Night and Fantasia, I’d almost posit a systematic inverse proportionality between the quality of music and the quality of a film constructed upon it. And there’s a gulf of difference between Walt Disney’s dream of the “concert film” and the modern music video, even though they share a common heritage.

There are some great videos that aren’t just a mask for a lack of musicality – consider Stars in “Your Ex-Lover Is Dead”, an ostensible tribute to Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (and a pretty good song). But not in jazz. Recent years have seen Diane Reeves’ contextual insertion into Good Night, and Good Luck and Diana Krall’s Chrysler commercials, but that’s a very specific type of jazz, the mellow strain.

So it’s with reinvigorated joy that I present this Wynton Marsalis iPod advertisement. This is probably the best visual representation of the bebop aesthetic’s latent dynamism that I’ve seen since Michal Levy’s animation of Coltrane’s Giant Steps. Pity it’s so darn short.

And now, as they say, for something completely different.

The National Scrabble Championship is no more. Starting with this year’s event in Phoenix, Arizona, its moniker is now the U.S. Scrabble Open, or maybe the Scrabble U.S. Open (they’re not wholly consistent). It makes a lot of sense, since for years, Williams and Edley have responded to questions about why Americans don’t have an invitation-only regional championship like us Canucks with the vision statement, “It’s like the U.S. Open.” Unfortunately, I don’t think the T-shirts will make for great conversation pieces like the ones with alluring words like “national” and “championship” written on them.

The official transition to the Second Edition of the Official Tournament and Club Word List (OWL2) isn’t until March, but this weekend I played the last-ever Calgary tournament with the old book, so for all intents and purposes I’m finished with l’ancien régime. It’s going to be an interesting change of pace to throw defensive strategy out the window now that Q and Z are a palpable threat, which leaves C and V as the only foolproof blocking tiles, but also means that I won’t have to fret so much about botching an endgame on account of drawing an unexchangeable Q. Bring on the QI and MBAQANGA!

Speaking of the Q, I’ve always wanted to play ENQUIrES on a double with the Q on a TLS for 122 points, and this weekend, I did. That made for a good $10 in addition to the $50 in third-place lunch money I earned with my 9-5 record.

Not so hot was when I tried to play APHORIsT on a triple in another game, which in my excitement I placed as APHROIsT*, losing both my turn and my spot. I think it’s the Scrabble nerd’s equivalent of shopping at FCUK.

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Thursday, 26 January 2006 — 12:24am | Studentpolitik

The Students’ Union Webboard has returned. This is a public service announcement and not in any way an unrelenting squeal of joy. In the months leading up to its disappearance back in early 2005 the Webboard’s utility and entertainment value were already in decline, but the new registration policy (requiring members to provide a unique university-affiliated e-mail address) is a sound one that will hopefully keep a lid on the overabundance of anonymous sockpuppetry that plagued the establishment prior to its subsequent implosion.

I’m glad to see that existing user records and the posts of the old regime have been preserved in full… or not. One notices that my triple-crossing Diplomacy victory as Italy is conspicuously missing. I demand answers.

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Jobs well done and a sharper Harper

Tuesday, 24 January 2006 — 9:29pm | Animation, Film

It’s official. That’s the capsule summary, anyway; here’s the full press release.

There’s a lot of optimism bubbling everywhere, even in auspiciously-titled pre-announcement commentaries like “Will the great big Disney destroy little Pixar?” But it looks like it’s Pixar’s positive energy spilling over onto the House that Walt Built.

Have a gander at this. It’s the day of the deal, and they already got rid of David Stainton. The same David Stainton who reportedly had the tact to tell all the newly-fired Florida animators that “the public couldn’t really tell the difference between the direct-to-video stuff and the films that Feature Animation actually produces.” Disney’s on the up-and-up.

Harry McCracken sums up the open questions pretty well, though he doesn’t address what I alluded to in my previous post as my biggest source of curiosity: creative control over sequels to established Pixar hits. But I’m sure there will be no shortage of commentary on every aspect of the deal in the days to come, so I’ll leave further comment to the experts.

On a related note about moving pictures: last year, and the year before that, I wrote about the touring selection of short films from the annual Ottawa International Animation Festival. The 2005 programme didn’t impress me as much as the last two, though that’s not to say the films weren’t good. There were a few standouts, and there are two in particular that I think I’ll remember for some time to come: Morir de Amor, Gil Alkabetz’s film starring two singing parrots in a birdcage, and At the Quinte Hotel, Vancouver animator Bruce Alcock’s interpretation of Al Purdy’s poem about beer and yellow flowers (set to the poet’s own reading). They’re marvels, and I want to discover them all over again.

And now for something completely different.

Everybody in the country has already said something about the outcome of the federal election in their own blogospherical cubbyholes. I normally either avoid discussing politics altogether or reserve it for rare cameo appearances at Points of Information, as a fiercely unaffiliated citizen whose interest is not in policy but in the dynamics of political gamesmanship. However, this time I have a few words on the subject.

Generally speaking, I like the final result, at least on the seat-count level of analysis. The Conservatives don’t have a majority to abuse, the Liberals don’t have a government to corrupt, the Bloc doesn’t have its former sovereigntist momentum and the NDP doesn’t hold the balance of power. Everybody lost in exactly the right ways, with the prominent exception of election MVP André Arthur.

Many have already pointed out that Stephen Harper’s victory speech is a contemporary classic as far as Canadian political rhetoric goes. I certainly don’t remember anything else of that quality from his party since its Frankensteinian reincarnation in 2004.

There’s one specific thing the incoming Prime Minister said that partisan sycophants of all colours (including his own) needed to hear, and I’m delighted he said it. I’ll highlight the relevant passage, and include the crescendo that precedes it for dramatic effect.

“Today, for the 39th time in 139 years, Canadians have elected a new Parliament. And as we have done many times before, Canadians have selected a new government. Let me say here tonight and to remind all of you that through all these different governments with their different priorities in their different eras, one constant binds us from MacDonald’s coalition of Tories and Reformers to the modern Conservative Party I lead. Canada: strong, united, independent and free.

“To those who did not vote for us, I pledge to lead a government that will work for all of us. We will move forward together. Our national identity was not forged by government policy; it does not flow from any one programme, any one leader or any one party. Our Canada is rooted in our shared history and in the values which have and will endure.

One last thing that nobody noticed or cared enough about to remember: a little after the stroke of midnight, CBC had a live report at the Liberal Party headquarters in British Columbia, where the mood certainly wasn’t that of a defeated party. Their correspondent had to speak up to hear himself above a jazz band they’d rented for the evening. They commented on the hot jazz and the cocktail party feel of the whole shindig.

What they didn’t point out was the song the band was playing: “Freddie Freeloader”. How appropriate. Doubly appropriate that like almost everything we consider jazz, most of the song is just a bunch of guys making it up as they go along. (The original recording on the seminal Miles Davis album Kind Of Blue features some of the most legendary blues solos you or I will ever hear.) The difference is that jazzmen improvise on chords and scales, and Paul Martin improvised on the notwithstanding clause.

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Hopping-lamp economics

Monday, 23 January 2006 — 2:03pm | Animation, Film

I know there’s an election going on. I also know Canadian politics hasn’t been this interesting in over a decade. I’ve been following every step and misstep, every hysterically impassioned partisan discussion board, and every noteworthy article up to this morning’s Edmonton Journal where Will McBeath is quoted on about three or four different pages including the colourful one on the front. And tonight’s result, whatever it is, is still only going to be the second-biggest story of the week.

The megaton hasn’t officially dropped yet, but the rumours have been steeping for some time now, and the emerging reality looks like one where the Disney-Pixar feud is settled by way of a merger in the ballpark of $7 billion. Never mind the implications for Apple, discussed everywhere from The New York Times to this blog, gargantuan as they are. As much of an expat Apple loyalist as I am, my primary concern is what the effect will be on what we see on the consumer’s side – the animation itself, in which Pixar has excelled without exception thanks to non-interference from upper management. I think Jerry Beck from Cartoon Brew, who is a lot more qualified than yours truly when it comes to dissertating about such matters, said it best:

I would have preferred that Pixar create its own distribution company and compete with the industry as a full-fledged stand alone player—but this possible buyout by Disney may be the next-best thing. (The worst scenario would’ve been for Pixar’s films to be distributed by another studio—Universal, Sony, or heaven forbid, Warner Bros.). Disney may be buying Pixar—but Pixar will be running the show—at least creatively, from the feature animation point of view. The optimist in me is delighted to have a visionary (Jobs) emerge as Disney’s largest stock holder. An innovative risk taker and business leader, Jobs could truly reinvigorate the studio. The optimist in me is thrilled that an animator (Lasseter) will likely be head of Feature Animation. With a proven love of the medium, and as a skillful filmmaker himself, Lasseter will no doubt push the studio forward and, at the same time, surely find a place for traditional (hand-drawn) animation at the studio that mastered it for so long.

There is an opportunity here for an incredible Disney renaissance—as the creative reins are handed, for once, to the right people at the right time. In this age of big corporations (and Disney is one of the biggest) and “bottom line” thinking, it’s easy to see how this can all go wrong. But I think the pieces are in place for an exciting new era in animation. At least, I hope so.

If my understanding is correct, it certainly helps resolve the property rights dispute. Disney can keep selling Pixar merchandise and developing Pixar-themed theme park attractions like the phenomenal “Turtle Talk with Crush” (as it would have been allowed to no matter what deal was worked out), but the critical benefit is that hopefully, we won’t see any direct-to-video hacks pissing on the gospels with some half-assed Toy Story 3 or Finding Nemo 2. What I fear is a dark, apocalyptic future where another Michael Eisner comes to power and stamps on the big P. Lord knows that every Disney renaissance had an antithetical dark age playing yang to its yin.

Oddly enough, chief Magic Kingdom pundit Jim Hill – who, unlike me, puts the Mouse House first – suspects Steve Jobs may be bad for Disney. I’m inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt, but then again, Jobs is an almost mythical figure. He’s the industry phoenix, if you will.

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Spelunkings of a Geisha

Monday, 16 January 2006 — 4:19pm | Film, Full reviews

I saw Brokeback Mountain before Christmas, but my review was held off until last Thursday, since the paper was on hiatus. The problem with being one of the last people to write 500 words about Brokeback is that there is very little to say about it that has not already been said, to the point where one could probably devise some kind of systematic indexing scheme for stock criticism about how it’s not just a gay cowboy movie, but speaks universal truths about forbidden love. The claim is true enough, but so much of the movie’s assets lie in nuance and subtlety – specific scenes, and specific gestures in specific scenes – that to haul it back to the level of capsule summary and holistic judgment is like restating the parallel postulate for everybody’s benefit when what you really want to do is examine transformations on hyperbolic surfaces.

The film is likely to pick up a whole heap of Golden Globes tonight, which I’m not watching thanks to Scrabble. I’ve never been suckered into the faux prestige of the Globes. The Hollywood Foreign Press has received a lot of undue attention by fortuitous statistical correlation to the Oscars alone – occasional, at that. And this year, they shafted both Munich in Drama and The Curse of the Were-Rabbit in Comedy. I remember when they had the class and courage to shower quality animation on an equal level with live-action.

I usually don’t do a year-in-review of film until about February, and this will probably be the case again, though the only exciting omissions on the list of movies I watched in 2005 are Crash and Walk the Line. I’ll catch up soon enough.

But first, a few words about Memoirs of a Geisha.

Now, one might wonder why I’m drawing attention to such a middling melodrama of no great consequence. Indeed, I found Geisha to be terribly underwhelming, though only rarely outright terrible. (To its credit, it sports pretty pictures of cherry blossoms and a lush musical score that is unique in the John Williams oeuvre, though in the general case the instruments and pentatonic melodies of the Far East are nothing new.) I want to talk about it because it is receiving a lot of undeserved hostility from folks on high horses who haven’t earned their spurs.

First are the postmodern other-thumpers who wave their Edward Said in the air and dismiss offhand the validity of a story about sexualized foreigners told in the mode of western romance. I contend that this is a misapplication of Orientalism.

Orientalist critique serves to reveal unexamined prejudices that are specifically not contained in the text, and calling the artist on it. In Geisha there are many. That’s fair. But the danger that Orientalism counteracts is the possibility that some secluded bloke might take mythologized falsities for historical fact.

Orientalism is not a blanket injunction on all works of tourist’s-eye-view fiction. We make allowances for factual inaccuracy in fiction all the time if it contributes to good fiction. Once contextual correspondence is out of the way, and those inaccuracies have been identified, it’s the textual system that counts. I find it far more patronizing for western audiences to be prematurely offended on the behalf of other cultures without an understanding of the difference between inaccuracy and offensiveness. As a romance, the Geisha story as presented in the film is weak for a number of reasons, but its western perspective isn’t one of them.

Then there are those who are deeply offended by the casting of three high-profile Chinese actresses as the principal players in a story set in idyllic fascist Japan, whose soldiers were off raping and pillaging in Manchuria at the time. There’s no other way to put it: the claim that actors of one Asian ethnicity can’t play characters of another is flatly ridiculous. Nobody complained when House of Flying Daggers starred a Japanese actor – and that was in no less romantic a role (martial arts expert, passionate lover, you get the idea). Were Polish Jews offended when a big-nosed American named Adrien Brody was cast as the lead in The Pianist?

Heck, Canadian actors play Americans all the time, and we hate Americans. At least, that’s what the Liberal Party tells me… some of the time.

To defer to one of the greatest film directors of all time: if Anthony Quinn can play Auda Abu Tayi and Omar Sharif can play Dr. Zhivago, all bets are off. Does Auda Abu Tayi serve? No!

If there’s any hump to get over at all once we’re past the biggest one (appearances), it’s not cultural consciousness or genetic heritage. It’s language. Sure, you can play it safe and genuine and go with an all-British cast for a British film, as was done to great effect in the Harry Potter films. But even Audrey Hepburn pulled off Eliza Doolittle the guttersnipe flower-girl and Eliza Doolittle the fair lady. Dialect coaching works wonders.

That’s probably the one aspect where the Chinese/Japanese discrepancy actually comes out in Geisha – language. Apparently, English in a sufficiently Asian accent was enough, and nobody took the care to note that there are actually noticeable differences between a Chinese accent and a Japanese accent. (It’s generally, but not always, in how they handle the Ls and Rs.) At any rate, it’s not a discrete either-or proposition, and if you listen carefully, even a Mandarin accent sounds different from a Cantonese one. Michelle Yeoh speaks in a sort of nether region that actually serves to make her character one of the more regal ones in the film. Gong Li, on the other hand, just sounds uncomfortable. But it’s not her fault she got horrible lines. “I will destroy you!” Yeah, whatever.

Here is a legitimate reason to subject Memoirs of a Geisha to endless mockery:

“Did Mother ever tell you about the eel and the cave? Well, every once in a while, a man’s eel likes to visit a woman’s cave.”

I’m told it’s straight from the book.

And you can stop giggling now.

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