« September 2002 | Main | November 2002 »

October 31, 2002

Sixth Sense

Class requirement. It becomes harder and harder to be nice to M. Night Shyamalan's work as time goes by because there's a growing question of how many tricks the pony has. This movie's really creepy, though, the kid is good, and Bruce Willis is alright.

Posted by mph at 2:53 PM

802.11 Gets a Little More Secure

802.11 Planet reports that there's a new security scheme for 802.11 based on the upcoming 802.11i spec. The difference between the new standard (WPA) and the old (WEP) for small-fry home users is in the pre-shared key mode. Where WEP uses a passphrase to salt a set of static keys, WPA uses the same passphrase to generate a new key with each connection, so brute-force attacks that rely on massive collections of packets to process won't work.

Extra good news is that the Wi-Fi Alliance is promising that this improvement will be able to be introduced via software and firmware upgrades, so existing gear will be able to take advantage of the new standard.

My concern: whether Apple will break this when it updates its Airport card software so that I can't use my Linksys WAP11 with it. A few months ago I wiki'd what it takes to get the two talking, more for the benefit of a local friend, but there's enough of a dearth of information on the topic that assorted Google searches have my humble entry ranking fairly high. In other words, if the new standard screws something up, it's going to mean more sifting through archived mailing lists filled with apocrypha and dead ends before things work again.

Posted by mph at 12:52 PM

October 30, 2002

Exploding Veterans

Sgt Stryker has a bit about the latest "shooter run amok" story to make the news, lamenting the bad rap the military will get because the murderer involved was a Gulf War veteran:

"If past experience is any guide, we might hear some dingbats, who don't know the military from a hole in the ground, go on and on about how the military "turns" people into cold-blooded killers. The fact that most American killers have been able to kill in cold blood without the benefit of military experience doesn't seem to occur to these folks, who assume that everyone in America is hunky-dorey until the dreaded Miltary gets its hands on them.

Here's a clue, folks: America is a very whacked country to begin with. The military doesn't "turn" people into anything. Most of the time, it takes fucked up individuals that American society has produced and gives them the opportunity to express their deviancy in a very legal, governmentally-sanctioned manner. The military cannot turn you into a murdering savage - you have to have the propensity for such behavior to begin with. "

Well, someone who says "everyone in America is hunky-dorey until the dreaded Miltary gets its hands on them" would probably qualify as a "dingbat," but I'm puzzled by what seems to be an assertion that the training/indoctrination process that begins with basic training and continues throughout the career of military personnel has no role in adjusting individual propensity toward mayhem.

Sometimes that indoctrination is flatly silly. I remember how stupid I felt standing around in the squad bay in basic training yelling "Blood! Blood! Blood! Drill Sergeant! Blood makes the green grass grow!", and I once had to do pushups once because my cries of "Kill! Kill! Kill!" while I stabbed a rubber tire weren't lusty enough. But I also remember spending three days of harassment from drill sergeants in signal school because I protested my company's daily dose of baby-killing cadences, which seemed to advocate not so much doing your job on the battlefield as they did wandering around your own neighborhood dealing death and destruction:

"You go to your local playground, where all the kiddies play
You pull out your Uzi, and you begin to spray!
Left right left right left right we kill!
Left right left right left right we will!

"You go to your local church, where people go to pray
You press the switch on your claymore
And blow them all away!
Left right left right left right we kill!
Left right left right left right we will!

"You go to your local mall, where people go to shop
You pull out your ka-bar,
And you begin to chop!
Left right left right left right we kill!
Left right left right left right we will!"

I think I've forgotten several choruses, because it got us from the barracks to the parade grounds, which was a pretty good march.

My resistance to that cadence earned me an invitation to leave the service (I declined and went on to earn my jump wings, among other awards), but not before a bizarre interview with a drill sergeant who asked me why I wouldn't be willing to kill the children of our enemies and a slightly more dire threat that if I ended up in another drill sergeant's unit in combat, he'd shoot me in the head so he wouldn't have to worry about me failing to "do my job," which, apparently, would have involved slaughter in the aisles of the local Barnes & Noble.

If I were to stop here, this would be a pointless plaint that the Army (or at least some of its drill sergeants) were mean to me, and it would be fair to say that I don't seem to understand the need for an essential core of brutality on the battlefield. But I do understand this, and it's hardly a secret that desensitization is a necessary component of military training: I knew it when I enlisted, and accepted it as part of the bargain. Don't take my word for it, though:

"During World War II, US Army Brig. Gen. S. L. A. Marshall had a team of researchers study what soldiers did in battle. For the first time in history, they asked individual soldiers what they did in battle. They discovered that only 15 to 20 percent of the individual riflemen could bring themselves to fire at an exposed enemy soldier.

That is the reality of the battlefield. Only a small percentage of soldiers are able and willing to participate. Men are willing to die; they are willing to sacrifice themselves for their nation, but they are not willing to kill. It is a phenomenal insight into human nature, but when the military became aware of that, they systematically went about the process of trying to fix this "problem." From the military perspective, a 15 percent firing rate among riflemen is like a 15 percent literacy rate among librarians. And fix it the military did. By the Korean War, around 55 percent of the soldiers were willing to fire to kill. And by Vietnam, the rate rose to over 90 percent."

That excerpt is from a longer article on the nature of violence in broader American culture by Lt. Col. (Ret) David Grossman, who people will disagree with less or more to the extent they believe violent media and video games are cathartic or desensitizing. LTC Grossman's conclusions are often in dispute, but his key work, On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society is reportedly required reading at West Point, where he was an instructor, and seems to enjoy general regard as essential to our understanding of what happens to our soldiers as they're trained and perform their duty.

Of basic training, the cornerstone of the military indoctrination process, he has this to say:

"Brutalization and desensitization are what happen at boot camp. From the moment you step off the bus you are physically and verbally abused: countless pushups, endless hours at attention or running with heavy loads, while carefully trained professionals take turns screaming at you. Your head is shaved, you are herded together naked and dressed alike, losing all individuality. This brutalization is designed to break down your existing mores and norms, and to accept a new set of values that embrace destruction, violence, and death as a way of life. In the end, you are desensitized to violence and accept it as a normal and essential survival skill in your brutal new world."

The ugliest part of this is that in a society where the need for a standing military and the periodic necessity for going to war are accepted, training a soldier for anything less than devotion to efficient and reflexive killing is a horrible disservice to both the soldier and his comrades who, finding themselves on the battlefield, are involved in a zero sum game that will confer no reward for retaining their humanity amidst the carnage.

So where's that leave us with SGT Stryker's concerns that uninformed commentators will lay every act of random violence on the part of a veteran at the feet of the military?

First, the point that someone who engages in the massacre of professors over failing grades is probably unstable in a way the military didn't "cause" is fair. Reflexively assuming that veterans are collectively unstable and dangerous is, indeed, unfair.

What's not unfair, though, is admitting that one key point of "soldierization" (as the Army likes to call it) is erosion of the individual's resistance to doing violence to others. If someone wants to argue that point's essential truth, there's no point in continuing the discussion: the military isn't running a Boy Scout camp, it's teaching people to wage war effectively.

LTC Grossman's work, and each incident of an ex-soldier engaging in a brutal rampage, challenge us to ask what happens to people once our country is done with them as soldiers (and people it has trained to kill). While I attended six months of periodic classes on going out into the civilian world as my enlistment drew to a close, my instructors in those classes were less concerned with my attitudes toward other humans than they were teaching me not to say "hooah" in a job interview. One morning I was helping out with the last minute details of handing over my operations office to my successor, the next morning I was a civilian again.

For my part, I feel confident that I'll never go on a killing rampage, or even start a fist fight. On the other hand, it's impossible for me to deny that any opinion or belief I hold about the necessity for violence must be forever qualified with the knowledge that I handed a chunk of myself over to our military for four years with, my resistance to baby-killing cadences aside, no qualification. The military might not turn people into murderous lunatics, but it certainly loosens the compunction against mayhem the already unstable individual suffers from. We owe it to veterans to consider the ultimate impact of their training and ask whether we can do better once we're through with them.

Posted by mph at 9:00 AM

Rank Posts of the Week

If you're curious about just how foul it can get, you can consider a pair of posts this week centering around the death of Senator Wellstone:

First, we have this bit of rancor:

As far as I'm concerned, this piece of traitorous shit useless idiot can rot in Hell forever, I'm not ever going to say something nice about a load of crap that was willing to trade the future of my two boys for the fake halo of being "principled".

You can rot in Hell, Senator Wellstone, I couldn't care less.

The author has since elided the parts about Hell because it "isn't Christian" to condemn others to Hell, which opens a whole can of worms about where the author's piousness or Biblical literalism begins and ends; and he(?) also gets rid of the "traitor" part because, well, someone bothered to call him on it. In other words, a prime example of the sort of soup-pissing you get from the worst of the blogosphere: ultimately there's no "there" there and it all becomes an exercise in embodying a Spinal Tap album title.

Which brings us to the other end of the "desecrating graves because the Innurweb lets us" spectrum:

There is no indication today that Wellstone's death was the result of foul play. What we do know, however, is that Wellstone emerged as the most visible obstacle standing in the way of a draconian political agenda by an unelected government. And now he is conveniently gone. For our government to maintain its credibility at this time, we need an open and accountable independent investigation involving international participation into the death of Paul Wellstone. Hopefully we will find out, beyond any shadow of a doubt, that this was indeed an untimely accident. For the sake of our country, we need to know this.

I do. I do know it.

I think I should almost be relieved, though. For the past year, we've been watching the country deal with a horrible, horrible shock in the way people do, trying to wrap some sort of coherent narrative around something that's unspeakable. People like the commentator in the first excerpt have gone about it in their own way, erecting a world view that involves a small band of "right thinking" citizens vs. the Entire World, including turncoat Democrats and Europe (especially France) while the whole world burns around them. For a leftist to find his voice and wrap another tragedy in The Conspiracy is ideological leavening for a country that has lost its collective shit, probably has a right to lose its collective shit, and will eventually re-seek its center if it's populated by normal human beings, which it is.

In other news, I found a copy of Hannah Arendt's The Origins of Totalitarianism today, and was happy to add it back to my bookshelf. I imagine it's considered hopelessly "Cold War" by people who don't put it on the syllabus any longer, but I remember and love it from my first run through college because it pricked at my "college lefty" preconceptions that Naziism and Stalinism were "polar opposites." I'm looking forward to reading it again. Once I finish 1066 (in honor of an upcoming "medieval dinner party" at Michael and Sue's) and The Riddle of Amish Culture (in honor of nothing in particular, except, perhaps, my own Anabaptist upbringing, such as it was.)

Posted by mph at 12:18 AM

October 29, 2002

The $140 Pr0n King

kuro5hin offers a look at how to make money looking at porn. It's an interesting, somewhat detailed report of how the thumbnail gallery post business works from the perspective of someone who plunked down his $140 for the Adult Webmaster School course. "Reputation," the author tells us, "is VERY important when selling porn."

The article mentions Salon's report on the "dean" of the Adult Webmaster School, who made his first money from the 'net plagiarizing book reports from Apple Online and selling them to his classmates.

Posted by mph at 10:32 AM

Hitchens On His Nation Split and "The Left"

Salon's carrying an interview with Christopher Hitchens where he discusses his disillusionment with "The Left."

My tradition from the extreme left days is different from that of most mainstream leftists, I think, in that I was a Trotskyist. The group I was a member of, International Socialists, was a dissident splinter of the Trotskyist movement -- you were always fighting a war on about five fronts. But it was worth doing. It taught me how to argue, streetfighting, polemic and so forth. With the Clinton years, I realized that the left had moved literally to the right, because it was willing to excuse things that the United States did that it shouldn't do if it was done by someone claiming to be a liberal Democrat. Horrifying things, like the bombing of Sudan on the international front, and horrifying things on the home front like the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act [of 1996], which, if either of these things were done by either Bush or Ashcroft, everyone would know what to say. When they were really being done and they were both worse things.

...and that's flatly weird. I don't know how long he managed to hang in there with the International Socialists, but if the current contortions of the antiwar Left are odd to him, he should have been put off pretty damn quickly by the stuff the IS comes up with... especially as a self-styled student of Orwell. Even if the tendency's politics weren't repugnant to him after close examination, the culture of the Trotskyist left is corrosive and bizarre enough to warrant a second thought:

The commissar and her closest associate (the vice-commissar who had made the statement about being willing to die) had just come back from a meeting of the ISO's National Convention. The commissar brought the news that the Midwest ISO organizer had called the Pittsburgh branch "uncreative and inward-looking," and then asked the branch for its opinions. When the soon-to-be-ex-member stated that this description of the branch was more or less correct, the commissar proceeded to blame the branch's entire debacle on this member, calling her a "petty-bourgeois dilettante." When the "dilettante" (whose father, incidentally, is a Teamster) replied that she "really didn't give a shit" what the commissar thought, the commissar answered: "I'm not the only one who thinks this," and then proceeded to have the other members denounce the "dilettante" for "putting limits on her time" and "only doing things half-way." After this miniature *Darkness At Noon* scenario had been carried out, the commissar then proceeded to state emphatically: "You know, I don't even care that much that we're only five members, because that way we'll be tight, we'll know what we're about, and we'll have our perspective right, because when the Revolution comes, we're going to have to kill people."

Maybe they didn't act like this while Hitchens was around, though I sort of doubt that. I also don't recall the IS tendency ever letting Clinton off the hook on anything, but I spent a few of the Clinton years out of the loop.

Posted by mph at 10:04 AM

No More GI Guinea Pigs(?)

WIRED reports that the Pentagon has promised to use only FDA approved drugs on GIs:

The Pentagon has assured Congress and military personnel that only FDA-approved drugs will be used, FDA dosage and administration requirements will be met and proper records will be kept.

Critics remain unconvinced. They claim Gulf War GIs were dosed with unapproved compounds responsible for chronic and sometimes fatal ailments. And they contend that the Pentagon's standard operating procedures and attitudes regarding drug administration are the antithesis of good medical practice.

I quit counting how many Gulf War veterans told me they palmed their "mystery meds" or skipped the vaccination line while deployed in Saudi Arabia.

Posted by mph at 8:40 AM

October 28, 2002

Saddam's E-mail Account Read By the World

Leave it to WIRED to come across an interesting story about Saddam Hussein's public e-mail account being compromised and screw it up by starting off with a "fright lead" before meandering around for three pages, burying the interesting part, which is US companies run by evident half-wits trying to sell Iraq everything from death rays to flame retardants.

I guess a cute hook is all you need these days: structure is just a nicety.

Posted by mph at 9:12 AM

October 25, 2002

Unsafe at any speed

I reflexively don't like SUVs, but outside not being able to a.) see around them, b.) understand their "utility" in a city where it's mostly flat and there's not a lot of parking space, or c.) relish the thought of one coming up through the windshield of my normal-sized car, I don't think about it much or talk about it, either. I also hate the cars with the "one less SUV" bumperstickers people drive four blocks to the grocery store.

All that aside, Salon has an interview with the author of High and Mighty, which goes into a ton of detail on SUVs and what they mean in terms of safety, the economy, and the people who buy them. If you're an SUV-hater, this'll reinforce your preconceptions. Others will no doubt figure out a reason to accuse the author of closet socialism or anti-Americanism.

Posted by mph at 3:46 PM

Rainy Day Cat Hunting Apparatus

Via Doc Searls we learn of the paper dart site. From here, we learn that given some copper tube and a copy of Newsweek, a paper dart blowgun is easily made. We also learn that toothpicks in the tips of our darts can stick in trees from 10 meters, self-striking matches will ignite when used as a dart payload, and that sewing needles might provide a good way to deliver poisons.

As I sit typing this, I'm eyeing Roy as he eyes a house plant he probably ought not be nibbling, and I'm thinking the traditional plant-mister solution to long range disciplinary strikes is passé.

Posted by mph at 2:38 PM

Interview with Mena Trott

I suspect the Trotts are all over the place because they produce Movable Type and have a lot of users. But in honor of my interest in their software, and because this is the first interview with one of them I've seen, I'm tossing up a link to South by Southwest's interview with Mena Trott.

Fav insight:

I think that there will be some sort of fork between weblogging and personal publishing. At this moment, these two terms are rather synonymous; in the next few years, we're going to see a focus on microcontent provided by the individual and an emphasis on the tools that will allow us to create and access such content.

I read that as a comment on the underlying fadishness of blogging as a form. Someone who posts a link and a snark or two isn't a micropublisher: he's a guy with an opinion and easy means to post it somewhere. There are some interesting people doing and saying interesting things, and hopefully they'll rise to the top as the fad fades and the clutter washes out. In the Linux "web space," the same thing happens all the time, in ever-shrinking cycles, as micropublishers make a name on a scoop or two then fade away as their enthusiasm (and ability to turn a buck) flag. I watched two or three generations of these sites over a few years. Saying it's a sad thing to watch a site come and go is sort of like saying it's a sad thing to watch a tree get leaves and lose them: it's part of a cycle. The only thing that's sad is that I can't tell my browser these sites have an "expiration date," so the abandoned vanity site running on a server in some guy's bedroom can quietly slip from my bookmarks within a month of him getting bored and forgetting it's there.

As a sidebar, Andrew Sullivan laments the profitlessness of his 'blog as anything other than a loss-leader for his (shoddy) opinionating. He's at least getting around to admitting that he and Glenn Reynolds aren't exactly the poor, sad, disenfranchised media orphans their continual breast-tearing to the contrary implies. People with a regular column on Salon and talking head appearances on Fox News don't get to call themselves "little guys" anymore.

Posted by mph at 12:08 PM

Blogger Hacked

Slashdot reports that Blogger got itself hacked. Michael took the opportunity to slip in some gloating (and why not... he's backing the "Web bbs" horse). Atypically, the reader comments are the best part of the story:

Blogs are what seperates us from the animals
Thats true. You never see dogs boring each other witless with the irrelevant minutiae of their lives. Mind you, dog's can lick actually their own genitals, which is pretty much what blogging is a substitute for...

Posted by mph at 10:22 AM

Google Phone Number Mapping

Visit Google, enter a phone number in quotes, get a map. (via JOHO the Blog.

Posted by mph at 9:47 AM

Whaddya mean there aren't any more!?

Last night I wrapped up the third book in George R.R. Martin's outstanding "Song of Ice and Fire" cycle, A Storm of Swords. I got up this morning, fired up the "innurweb" (as Aaron likes to call it) and learned that a.) Mr. Martin sees the whole thing going two more volumes, at least and that b.) the fourth volume, A Feast for Crows isn't out until April of next year. Gack!

One thing that absolutely rocked about coming in on the Black Company stuff was that the whole series was done by the time I knew of it: easy to just go down to the book store and pick up the next in the series once or twice a week.

But as a big, fat, fwiw: if you like "fantasy," read Martin. I'm usually disappointed and pissed off with the gigantic "cycles" and "epics" polluting the shelves (yeah, yeah, you know), but I think Martin's on to something original and interesting. He kills characters you just don't expect, has some of the most sympathetic villains going (the Black Company lost that early on), and has some great back story stuff going on. I really like the world he's created and I'm jonesin' hard for the next book. Considering the mere $4 gap in price between the hard cover and trade paperback editions, I don't know if I'll be able to wait for the paperback version.

Posted by mph at 12:18 AM

October 24, 2002

Gaming Classics

I hated Adventure and thought the "dragon" looked like a giant duck, but it's hard not to be tickled by a Flash version that copies the original 2600 game. (seen on Slashdot)

Posted by mph at 11:49 PM


Now that it looks as if the sniper(s) may have been apprehended, the real fun can begin, with InstaPundit demonstrating his usual flare for the commentless comment (and providing a few of our links below, so thanks to him for toiling away selflessly while I sat in class listening to the kids jabber about how Quentin Tarantino is "alternative"... even if he is a troll who knows better than some of what he posts.)

CNN, The Washington Post and AP have the most thorough "what we know so far" items, and the sort of biographical data you'd expect is beginning to appear. But that's boring compared to the real spectacle.

More interesting is going to be the avalanche of gleeful ideologues saying "I told you so". Clayton Cramer is the funniest: he's held for a while that our ex-Army machinist and his Jamaican friend are a rogue al Qaeda cell, and is now crowing because one of them is, indeed, not from the US and the other is a self-identified member of the Nation of Islam, which seems to be enough for him.

Envy him the simplicity of his world, and don't feel too bad for him: in his heart he knows he's right.

The New York Times is a little more careful to point out that most profiling experts were wrong for a variety of reasons, most overlooking the problem with crazy people, which is that they're nuts.

When my "battle buddy" in basic training called himself a "Black Muslim," we all knew to roll our eyes because it was Hudson being an idiot. If Hudson had been the one to go on a shooting rampage, I'd know better than to snap my fingers and say "Damn! Hudson was a rogue terrorist all along!" In fact, I'd know better than to say "Damn! I knew those Islamic types were a menace," because Hudson would have told you he was a horned toad if he would have thought it could get a reaction. I'd know, in fact, to say something like "Wow... Hudson finally snapped," because one of the benefits of separating people from their words is understanding that crazy people say all sorts of things, and frequently "shop around" for political/religious movements to belong to.

One last snark: blogdom is in an uproar tonight because "the media" is "downplaying" one of the arresetee's "Muslimness." How much can "the media" be downplaying it if these people know the arrestee's a self-identified Muslim in the first place? Oh... right... the bloggers have forced them to admit it... or something.

Posted by mph at 11:19 PM

Reservoir Dogs

Class requirement. Points for novelty and atmosphere. Points off for it opening the portal to hell from which the gibbering Tarantino monkey-demon escaped.

Posted by mph at 2:55 PM

October 22, 2002

Film Notes: Reservoir Dogs

Part of this term's class, "Writing About Film," involves a short, "impressionistic" essay on one of the movies under discussion. I picked Reservoir Dogs, which is pretty much immune to "impressionistic writing" after ten years of fawning imitation.

I think that what did it for me was having that smart '70s music, and I just felt like this filmmaker thinks this is just really cute, the guy's dancing around. I felt Tarantino's presence even though I knew virtually nothing about him at the time. And I walk out and Tarantino is there and he [Craven makes a helium-pitched, hyper voice]

"Hey, I made a movie too intense for Wes Craven. I'm so happy!" But it was just the filmmaker thinking it was so cool, not talking about being cruel. It was being cruel without being aware. And at another point, I was just, "I'm out of here, I don't want to watch this."

-Scream director Wes Craven as interviewed by Ian Grey in Sex, Stupidity, and Greed: Inside the American Movie Industry

As we first get to know "the rat" in Reservoir Dogs, he describes crime boss Joe Cabot as "The Thing," a radiation-altered mutant from a comic book: hideous and unnatural to a character who doesn't realize the nature of the community he seeks to infiltrate. It's within a broader context of moral disfigurment that Reservoir Dogs is set, with the tolerance of '90s movie audiences toward violence and gore exploited to lovingly recreate the '70s "tough guy crime picture" in a way that had immediate visceral impact and much longer lasting artistic impact on popular movies. Quentin Tarantino added dashes of timeline manipulation, knowing pop culture references, and geek-cred-establishing nods to then-exotic Hong Kong actioners to put together a film that is almost impossible to write about impressionistically 10 years later, because it continues to permeate popular film idiom and because it launched a flood of interest in the forms and styles it referenced. It was its own thing for a few months, during which it enjoyed a run at art houses before being launched into mainstream venues, and then it was inescapable, as was its mile-a-minute, clerk-to-riches director. Now it's almost impossible to imagine Hollywood without the things Reservoir Dogs popularized.

At its core, Reservoir Dogs is a crime movie in a subgenre that enjoyed its peak popularity in the late '60s and '70s. In the Reservoir Dogs universe, hardened criminals work for "syndicates" or "The Organization" and dress a lot like their office worker counterparts in the square world. They have a code they to which they cleave as rigidly as Southern Baptists cleave to their own. They're hard, pragmatic men who respect the relative sanctity of "civilians," ("real people" as Mr. Pink calls them in an early scene, as opposed to disposable cops), but kill reflexively when faced with the prospect of a stretch in prison. They're concerned about their "professionalism," and understand the uses of violence and coercion as well as a carpenter understands saw and lathe, with one darkly funny scene involving Harvey Keitel's Mr. White explaining how to break noses to fix store managers with "Charles Bronson" aspirations before deciding to "go get a taco."

Like the rest of us, the tough guys respect loyalty (Reservoir Dogs' primary complication arises because of misplaced loyalty, and it reaches several peaks and climaxes when loyalty is tested). Reservoir Dogs' spiritual ancestors are The Wild Bunch, Bonnie and Clyde, Dirty Harry (the cop as loosely leashed criminal), and Point Blank.

So lovingly does Tarantino seek to recreate the sense of the B-grade crime flick that he dresses his characters in the characteristic thin ties and black suits of the organization man of 1968, and laces his dialog with references to icons of the form ("I bet you watch a lot of Lee Marvin movies," admires one character to another), and decorates the walls of the one home we see with characters from the Kirby-age of Marvel Comics in the '70s. A continual soundtrack of "super sounds of the '70s" plays above the proceedings (but only inside the warehouse, where our criminal relics play out their ethic at its most savage). The cars are a parade of red paint and white vinyl interiors.

The colors are washed out and muted, as if the movie itself is an aging print, and the lighting is a throwback to a time before the honey-soaked and saturated colors so popular when Reservoir Dogs was released.

So, the same year Clint Eastwood symbolically wrote a final love song to Dirty Harry, Josey Wales, and The Stranger with Unforgiven, Tarantino brought the form back. The same year that A Few Good Men declared the next important social struggle was the exorcism of the throwback warrior at the hands of boy lawyer Tom Cruise and matriarchal Demi Moore, Tarantino recreated a world almost completely driven by retrograde masculinity and almost completely devoid of women except as anonymous figures to be tipped, executed, or passingly dismissed as "fuck machines," saturating his work with bloodshed and brutally frank language that was forbidden the directors who had inspired him, analogous to Chinatown's recreation of film noir with a '70s sensibility.

There are other elements in the mix besides the homage to tough guy criminal movies and their world of inverted morality that both contribute to the feel of the movie and the overwhelming success it enjoyed:

The film's opening dialog is the prototypical pop-culture rant... the sort of bong-inspired analysis a young filmgoing audience recognized from its own beer-addled afternoons in the back yard with mom and dad's appropriated croquet set, comfortable in the knowledge that anything will yield to clever wordplay, both mocking and parroting the disjoint stream of consciousness they had come to associate with deconstruction. Kevin Smith has built a career on the pop-culture rant, which critics have alternately dismissed as "wordy" or euphemized by applauding his "good ear for dialog; and universally damned with "quirky."

By bracketing his film's cheerful '70s pop soundtrack with uber-abject comedian Steven Wright's somnambulent DJ, Tarantino acknowledged and celebrated the overwhelming irony dripping from youth culture idiom. Where Utne Reader fretted just a few years earlier in its special "Post Modernism" issue that it was "time to get back to the good, the true, and the beautiful," Tarantino seemed to argue that, like a college kid in a Salvation Army store, he wasn't done playing in the debris of pop culture moments gone by. He simultaneously established his youth culture cred and earned a pass for a movie that left such a lasting impression in the (literally) visceral gore it trotted out that an action figure designer proudly notes the "earless cop" version of one of his toys during an interview on the 10th Anniversary DVD. A knowing wink, we've learned, excuses a lot of bad behavior if you can convince the scholars of your essential puckishness or ironic intent.

Tarantino also announced himself to a burgeoning "geek culture" raised with VCR's in the house with which to indulge its love of film and newly armed with growing Internet access with which to dicuss its passions. It's impossible to forget the fury with which the film's final shootout was argued in Internet mailing lists at the time, or the agitated aural dissections of Mr. Pink's final moments off-screen. By "borrowing" moments from John Woo's operatic recreations of American crime movies in the form of two-fisted shooting, cartoonish sobriquets, and the classic eye-to-eye standoff of angry, armed men unflinchingly daring each other to shoot first, Tarantino established himself as a film geek's director.. the carefully doled-out facts of his previous employment as a film store clerk endeared him further to the same people wandering aimlessly through the previous year's Slacker.

So that brings us to a few conclusions and a few questions.

It's impossible to not feel some affection for moments of the film, even when they're base. Tough guys pleading the case of a waitress to the non-tipping Mr. Pink remain a comic moment, even if they've been endlessly echoed for a decade. Mr. Orange's doom becomes poignant in a flashback where we watch him try to bolster his courage in a mirror and armor himself with a wedding ring for a wife he doesn't have. Mr. Blonde is charmingly menacing. Mr. White's inverted assessment of the virtue of his fellow criminals, with Mr. Blonde's massacre of innocents being an undisputable credential, is ironic and funny.

It's similarly hard to fault the sheer technique brought to bear. The camera work alternates between the static,wide angles of older, cheaper movies and choppier first-person work that establishes the director's competence in a more modern mode. Tarantino's story-telling abilities and descriptive powers are also on display: it's interesting to note that the film's most violent and brutal scene, one we could almost imagine we saw on screen, was never filmed, but merely described by the characters as they compare notes.

We're also left with some unfortunate questions.

The violence, as mentioned, is shocking. From the growing puddle of gore in which Mr. Orange wallows, to the brutal torture scene played as comic material, to assorted shootings and assaults that leave everyone but Mr. Pink dead, Reservoir Dogs is grotesque, and it's grotesque in the service of nothing discernible unless Tarantino seeks to remind us that "crime doesn't pay," or "loyalty and ethics can bring ruin when practiced in a vacuum," or "live by the sword, die by the sword." But the quote at the beginning of this essay reveals much about Tarantino and his outlook on his creation: it's a matter of pride that none other than Freddie Kruger's creator was chased from a screening, which leaves us wondering if the director is as much an author steeped in a post-modern sensibility as he is a little boy shoving firecrackers up frog butts, ultimately, like Seinfeld, rendering his movie "a show about nothing" except, perhaps, its own sense of style.

Taken in the context of Tarantino's three-film career (hard to believe considering the promsicuity with which he "presents," produces, and allows films to be "from" him on the video store shelves) even more questions are raised. He was invulnerable to critics cowed by the market success of Reservoir Dogs when Pulp Fiction arrived two years later, but he was largely yawned at with Jackie Brown in 1997. That was the same year in which yet another "indie" film convinced us all "mainstream Hollywood was in danger" (Good Will Hunting) and he got out-earned by his own inspiration, John Woo, who appropriated an actor Tarantino himself had resurrected (John Travolta) to make Face/Off which gave audiences more of Tarantino's now-trademark violence than Tarantino himself could probably muster. The questions center around what it means about a movie-going audience that, presented with a director who evolved in a positive direction after a crude but skilled, grotesque but comic initial entry, rejected him when he matured enough to "write women" adequately and grew enough to tell a story outside a narrowly defined world of set-pieces and tricky time-shifting. It doesn't say much nice, especially when he was shoved off the charts by Air Force One, Jurassic Park: The Lost World, and My Best Friend's Wedding; and it puts us in the position of almost pitying one of the last ten years' most profound examples of hype run amok: passed up by a movie culture he influenced for years to come for better or worse.

Posted by mph at 10:47 PM

October 20, 2002

Igby Goes Down

Coming-o'-Age flick with good Jeff Goldblum leching. A little Rushmore, a little Catcher in the Rye.

Posted by mph at 2:41 PM

October 19, 2002


Wow. Interesting exploration of the world of sadomasochism that doesn't make fun of its subjects and allows even "non-kink" people to empathize. It's a movie about damaged people that isn't depressing.

Posted by mph at 2:38 PM

October 18, 2002

Arts and Crafts

Spent the last couple of evenings working on a lamp I found the recipe for in ReadyMade:

styrofoam cup lamp

It took a glue gun, about 100 styrofoam cups, a coathanger, and the fixin's for a lamp: some wire, electrical tape, a switch, and the lamp socket. The original recipe calls for a white light bulb (which would give it a certain Logan's Run cleanliness) but we went with a 25 watt yellow bulb to help it go with the decor in that corner of the room.

Posted by mph at 1:09 PM

October 17, 2002

Fight Club

Troubling to hang a hat on this. "Iron John" types nod in agreement at gender warrior bullshit spewing from Brad Pitt's mouth, which either means the director/writer screwed up or the writer really is that confused.

Posted by mph at 2:58 PM

October 10, 2002


Class requirement. '70s "neo-noir" with Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway.

Posted by mph at 2:59 PM

October 8, 2002

Another March Photo

protest under a skywalk

This picture was taken at the march on Saturday. The estimated numbers on the event, by the way, are ranging from 5,000 to 12,000. Bloomington, IN managed about 100 on Monday. I seem to recall better numbers in 1991, but I think the typical "turn out for a march" lefty/progressive is feeling much more disoriented this time around: Iraq and terrorism have, in the last few months, been effectively linked.

Watching the news tonight, the post- Bush speech man on the street bit has someone at the airport telling us he thinks Bush made some good points and that he's glad we might be able to stop a "dirty bomb" if we go to war.

Posted by mph at 9:44 PM

October 7, 2002

Clean, New Bowls

The novice monk said to Chao-chou, " I have just entered the monastery. Please teach me." Chao-chou said, have you eaten your rice gruel?" The monk said, "yes, I have." Caho-chou said, "Wash your bowl." The monk understood.

We have too many bowls of a nondescript variety. Alison's a morning oatmeal person and I'm a yogurt-n-granola fan. We go through a lot of clean bowls... they're easily 80% of our dishwashing load. So we bought new bowls we've agreed to wash as soon as we're done using them.

It seems like a small thing to agree on, but one of the perils of working at home and having an undirected personality is the problems that come from routines and habits failing to take root. Too much structure results in "Casual Fridays." Too little imposes its own problems.

Posted by mph at 9:56 PM

As Promised: Red Dragon Capsule

A promised capsule review of Red Dragon.

As predicted, Alison and I trooped off to Red Dragon yesterday. As predicted, it had problems. As promised, here are some brief notes:

Quick Notes:

General Observations:
Red Dragon has some problems out of the gate: it's already been done, perhaps better, by Michael Mann in his Manhunter. It's impossible, if you've seen Mann's movie, to watch this one without making comparisons. This point has been done to death by most reviewers, so we'll leave it there.

Anthony Hopkins is another liability. On a recent Charlie Rose interview, Hopkins was asked about his acting technique. Hopkins, clearly there because he was supposed to be, and badly distracted, absent-mindedly allowed that he reads scripts "hundreds of times" to "get into the character." But he's clearly on autopilot throughout the movie, offering nothing much but more of the same with a little gay innuendo to spark knowing titters from, well, everybody in the audience. There's nothing weirder than being in a room full of people who know the character they're watching is a serial killer and a cannibal but somehow find it in themselves to be scandalized that he might also be gay.

Edward Norton, as noted above, isn't that bad, but he's handed some lines that are terrible in a sort of "yes, our audience is just that stupid, we better catch 'em up" sort of way. When he gets a good line, he delivers it well. His natural affability shows through.

Despite its generally steady motion from point A to point B, the movie begins to induce fidgeting at the 90 minute mark, which the director must have sensed, since he was careful to toss in a gratuitous explosion.

Though it looks nice, and even manages to establish a sort of visual continuity with Silence of the Lambs, there are points where that continuity breaks down, as if cinematographer Dante Spinotti, who has kicked ass with Heat, The Insider, and LA Confidential, didn't want to live with choices his predecessors in the "Lecter Cycle" made. At those points, usually outside shots, details begin to pop and snap from the screen with jarring resolution, demanding your attention. His interiors, however, are consistently gorgeous.

Finally, there's an unfortunate final scene that seeks to bring Red Dragon into sync with Silence that ends up annoying more than entertaining, further forcing the Lecter character to the front and trivializing the characters who parade in front of him, turning them into props in the "Hannibal Trilogy." Where Harris mauled his own characters to feed his reading audience more Lecter in the novel Hannibal, the film Red Dragon finishes the job by retroactively diminishing them further.

There's not much more to say except that as the credits finally began to roll, I groaned. Two hours of my life gone, and the normal rationalization that I'd "only coughed up matinee prices" sounding more hollow than usual.

Avoid. If you can't avoid, get someone else to pay for the rental.

Posted by mph at 6:26 PM

October 6, 2002

Useful and Less Useful Things to Say

Was it useful to march against a war in Iraq yesterday? I don't know. I doubt it, except, perhaps, as a way of offering an indication to the big sea of undecideds and less-convinced that consensus on the usefulness of the exercise hasn't been achieved.

On the other hand, I was sorry to see sentiment like the signs in the picture below. Effective consensus has probably been reached that whether he deserves it or not, Bush is the President of the U.S. At least close enough to effective consensus that a reasonable "tending toward anti-interventionist/libertarian Republican" would probably decide too many people against going into Iraq aren't worth listening to because of other baggage.

I do like the picture itself, though. Still learning some ins and outs on the camera, but had a much more satisfying collection of pictures yesterday than similar situations in the past. I'll put them on the gallery when I'm done processing them.

Posted by mph at 9:57 PM

October 5, 2002

PreCog Film Snark: Red Dragon

Red Dragon is about more than just being an excuse to make another sucky followup to Silence of the Lambs.

I can't imagine any "highly anticipated" movie I want to see less than Red Dragon.

Alison's more optimistic, and she rightly points to a pretty good cast (Harvey Keitel and Ed Norton among others) as an indication there could be hope, but the awful Hannibal had a "pretty good cast," too, and it was awful... undredeemably awful... "why am I still sitting here?" awful.


Walk into a book store, preferably a chain like Borders, Barnes and Noble, or Walden (best example because Walden is usually the most space-constrained). Walk over to the science fiction section. Take a long look. There are some near-guarantees I can offer: there will be a complete shelf of Star Wars titles. There will be a comparably large collection of Star Trek titles. In the rest of the collection you'll find a few desultory nods to "the classics," an obligatory smattering of the stunningly awful stuff that gets used as mortar in the collection, and you'll find the section's reason to be: the Epic Saga Told Over Nine Trilogies.

It's not for me to judge or snob over the publishing industry's recognition of consumer preference: people like to come back to worlds where they're comfortable. But there are two problems with tapping that vein:

Witness Dune, a classic SF series that was in trouble by the time Frank Herbert died, only to be trampled by his son and a collaborator the industry was rewarding for his journeyman hackwork on Star Wars books.

This mentality fueled Hannibal: if we dug the exploits of supah-killah Lecter in Silence of the Lambs, imagine how much we'd love it if he were turned loose without having to worry about competing serial killers or a pesky cage to limit his range of motion! The character went from a person to a fully-articulated action figure with movable joints and an accessory pack: barrel chest, bulging pecs, and three plastic scalpels, a knife, and a cute little lunch kit with real pieces of plastic sushi! The film could be excused on two grounds, though: it couldn't realistically not be made by any studio that cared about money, and the novel on which it was based couldn't realistically have not been written by an author with an eye on early retirement. Its motives were crowd-pleasin' repetition, and it earned no more contempt than Rocky II from me.

On the other hand, Red Dragon is abusive if only because, as the Village Voice notes, it was made to revise the Hopkins-less Manhunter out of the picture, offering little more than a sort of Franklin Mint completedness for all the collectors out there. That the studio was willing to do this frightens me, because there's no more "Lecter" source material from Thomas Harris to use once this movie has run its course. That leaves us contemplating Hannibal Lecter morphing from an overexposed property into a genuine James Bond-style franchise, perhaps recruited by the CIA to go gnaw off the faces of the leaders of rogue nations or parachuted into Colombia to sup on the livers of drug lords and corrupt judges.

Sam says I throw the baby out with the bathwater too often, so I'll confess that a dis of Red Dragon on any grounds other than my aversion to franchise-milking is premature. I haven't seen it, have the feeling I will in the next 96 hours with matinee prices being the compromise in the whole deal, and I'll come back with a real, if brief, rundown when I do.

Additional Early Reviews:

Posted by mph at 6:29 PM

Don't know about art...

Maybe a culture more comfortable with the idea that any person can be a creative agent without being a "good artist" wouldn't spawn so much unhappiness.

The Atlantic Online has an interview with the author of A Reader's Manifesto:

"Myers argues that the typical "literary masterpiece" of today is usually in fact a mediocre work dolled up with trendy writerly gimmicks designed to lend an impression of artsy profundity and to obscure the author's lack of talent. An affected, deliberately unnatural prose style, banal pronouncements intoned magisterially as if they were great pearls of wisdom, relentless overuse of wordplay, and the gratuitous inclusion of foreign words are just a few of the affronts to good writing of which Myers finds several well-known authors guilty.

Though readers don't tend to get much pleasure from the books that are selected for literary stardom, they usually wrongly attribute the problem to themselves, Myers explains, assuming that if a critically celebrated work fails to speak to them, it must point to their own lack of taste or limited understanding. Compounding the problem, he argues, is the fact that today's critics—most of whom are novelists themselves—try to foster the idea that good writing is recognizable to sophisticated literary connoisseurs but is beyond the ken of ordinary folk."

Don't know if the sweeping generalizations of the first 'graf are accurate (I don't read "modern literary masterpieces"), but the second is the good part: it would be good if we had a population both educated and confident enough of its own judgement to know when it's being had.

Seems worse to me, too, when I think about how popular it is to bait the middle class for living in a state of perpetual paranoia over demonstrating appropriate "taste." Worse yet when I factor in the reasonable enough charge that most middle class taste is banal and "safe," with a general (only occasionally varied) love of things that are pretty or precious (the cultural oil-slick of brittle irony notwithstanding): they like that goopy stuff because it's non-objectionable. So we wade around in a sea of Deck the Walls inventory and hotel art because "real" art requires a demonstration of judgement. Best to stick to what's pretty because the real, good stuff is too tough to figure out:

" Here's my theory. Many people want to set themselves off from the Grisham-reading herd, but they don't want to read a classic because they're afraid someone will say "Bleak House? God, I did that back in college." And they know they'll get even less cachet from reading an old novel like Caleb Williams that no one's heard of. So they buy the latest prize-winner, which is easily recognized in the office and subway as the "better" kind of book, and then they read it, secure in the knowledge that thousands of the "better" people across the country are reading it at about the same time. I'm sure they genuinely enjoy this sense of intellectual community, even if they don't enjoy the actual book. But remember: they don't have to enjoy it. They're allowed to say that it isn't their cup of tea, or that they found it heavy going. What they mustn't do is differ with the "better" consensus and dismiss the book as bad. Only philistines like me do that."

Maybe a culture more comfortable with the idea that any person can be a creative agent without being a "good artist" wouldn't spawn as much of this unhappiness.

Posted by mph at 2:12 PM

October 1, 2002

Red Dragon

Awful. Redeemed in a small way by the cinematography, drug screaming into hell by the movie's own cultural implications and essential pointlessness.

Posted by mph at 2:43 PM