Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Movie characters: Self-Absorbed Whiny Writer Man

Tortured Writer in an empty pub
The eyes see only what the mind is prepared to comprehend ~Robertson Davies
There's a lot of different character archetypes in the movies, but perhaps the one that most singly annoys me is that of the Self-Absorbed Whiny Writer Man, or SAWWM. (I just made that up, isn't it catchy?) These narcissistic fools pour over their manuscripts in vain, moaning and obsessing over their muse and seek redemption through her perfect eyes. She is not a person, but a means to salvation. She is not a human being with her own wants and needs, but merely a metaphor for real life: the life of the SAWWM. Are tortured artists incapable of real empathy and appreciating another human without thinking of her in relation to themselves and placing her on a pedestal?

To be fair, I'm not sure of the intentions of the characters' creators. They very well could be saying "Isn't it sooo annoying when a guy acts this way? Let me depict it for you!" But since it's writers writing about... writers, I have trouble believing that it isn't at least a teensy bit autobiographical. Here are three movies (two adapted from books written by.... writers) that feature a SAWWM as the central character. By central, I mean narrator who tries hard to be a passive observer yet secretly wishes the universe revolved around him.

Sophie's Choice
You'd think this would be a movie all about Sophie, right, given the title. Wrong! This is about how a dopey milquetoast writer named Stingo sees Sophie. He makes great analogies from her horrific experiences in a WWII concentration camp to his own struggle with writer's block. See? It's totally the same thing. Just in case you can't tell from this picture, Sophie's not interested in Stingo. He's the one staring off into space, imagining her perfections rather than actually looking at her. It spoils the illusion, you see.

Sex and Lucia
I was excited to watch this titillatingly-titled film, assuming it was about a woman's journey of coming into her own. Wrong! Instead the central figure is her dopey narcissistic and tortured writer boyfriend, Lorenzo. And they meet a totally implausible way. He is a famous writer, and Lucia is a drop dead gorgeous waitress who's fallen madly in love with him since she read his novel. She's taken to stalking him, and confronts him breathlessly in a cafe. Upon their first meeting she explains that she is in love with him and perfect for him. Instead of calling the cops like a smart guy, Lorenzo merely smiles and smokes cigarettes, then soon after proceeds to nail her. Riiiight, guys. This is exactly how it happens. If you write a novel, you will immediately have hot women throwing themselves at you who are mentally sound. You wish, screenwriter man!

Lucia provides inspiration for his stories, but he gets so wrapped up in writing them he begins to neglect their relationship entirely. There's also some complicating factors like the fact that he's a dad with someone else and then lusts after his kid's babysitter. He somehow winds up in bed with her while trying to be as passive as possible. And what are the chances that Lucia's voyage of self-discovery would include a trip to the island where he had a one night stand with the mother of his child? She and the baby mama have a good deal of commiseration, but they never kick Lorenzo to the curb. They even both love him!

The Great Gatsby
Both in the book and on the silver screen, Nick Carraway is completely infatuated with Daisy. She's his second cousin so there's some potential ickiness there. He lacks direction and meaning in his life. And yet again, we have a menage a trois. Nick totally admires Gatsby in a man-crush kind of way and is willing to overlook his fallibility. Yet another writer with no moral turpitude! The plot is convoluted and sad but as the world falls down around Nick by the end of the book, he leaves and goes off back to the Midwest to muse about his time with Gatsby and Daisy. Without, you know, actually doing anything.

In conclusion, avoid these SAWWMs like the plague. They are wrapped up in their own drama and fail to connect with you on an emotional level. They lack the backbone to make decisions for themselves. They blunder through life, poisoning the lives of those around them for the sake of a good story. And who wants a tag-along with his head in the clouds when you already have a significant other?

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Finishing an unfinished wooden table

Another installment of Ye Olde Home Improvement Projects! I've had a simple unfinished wooden table from IKEA for a few years now in my kitchen. It's really annoying to do food prep on there because everything seeps into the wood, and it looks, well, unfinished. With the help of the internet, friends, and the local hardware store, I'd say the table is in good shape now!

Here's a quick peek at the surface of the "before" table.
Sink project 4

First I sanded the entire visible surface of the table (including legs!), to remove gunk and to get it ready for staining. I went through a number of sandpaper pieces. I applied a neutral darker woodsy stain along the grain with a paintbrush and let it dry overnight. I didn't realize that stains don't protect the wood; they are merely cosmetic. D'oh. What the heck could I put on top of this?

Answer: polyurethane!

I got a foam brush at the hardware store to put on the coats. You have to wait 48 hours(!!) between coats, so yeah, varnishing wouldn't make a very good action movie subplot. (Maybe in an arthouse indie film where watching paint dry is a metaphor for modern society.) Also make sure that it's a well-ventilated area.

I sanded the stained table and applied the first coat over the entire stained area. For the second coat, I sanded and reapplied only on the surface of the table. Now 48 hours later, here is the result:
INGO Table
INGO table
I got a few scratches on it when I accidentally sanded against the grain, but overall, it looks like a smooth finish and is repelling water and all that good stuff. Now it looks like real furniture and not poor student temporary digs!

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Instruments of wonders

Theremin: look but don't touch!
Rocket Science @ Annandale Hotel
Did you know there's an instrument you can play without touching it? And has been making appearances in mainstream pop music since the 1960s? Well I sure didn't until recently.

The theremin was named after its inventor, Leon Theremin, who came up with this crazy electronic contraption in 1919 Russia. Apparently Lenin was quite proud of the technology and showed it off around the world. Usually a theremin has two antennae, one for pitch and one for volume, both of which are determined by the position in space of both hands. There have been many variations on the original design, including the electro-theremin, the instrument heard on the Beach Boys' track "Good Vibrations."

Gnarls Barkley's song Crazy, Theremin-style (very well done!)

When cats and theremins collide

Tesla coils: they sing

Megavolt Tesla Coil 1
Even older than the theremin technology is the Tesla coil. It was invented in 1891 by Tesla, and consists of resonant electronic circuits. They've had a variety of uses over the years, and ones used specifically for music have recently become known as Zeusaphones. They have to been seen to be believed. Check out the Tesla-fication of familiar theme songs below.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Pirates of the Caribbean 3 = Iraq war metaphor

I'm fascinated by how even the most banal of Hollywood movies provide insight into contemporary thought, especially in the political realm. While we're in the midst of the Iraq War, it's difficult to now imagine the myriad of ways it impacts our collective psyches and our art.

When I saw the Sam Peckinpah western The Wild Bunch in college, I was struck by how different the cinematic style was from older westerns. Even in period pieces, present-day morals and stylistic gestures shine through. (This includes bafflingly contemporary hairstyles and fashion for women, but that's another post altogether.) In 1930s-50s westerns a la John Wayne, the heroes and the villains were clearly defined. Even the fighting was orderly, with the different camps maintaining a physical separation. Think of the showdowns on dirt roads and the different colored outfits of the goodies and the baddies. Well, The Wild Bunch was a big, bloody mess. The fight scenes were huge and chaotic, and no character could claim the upper moral hand. It was difficult to keep track of who was who and why they were killing each other. I turned to my friend and said, "I bet you this movie was made during the Vietnam War." Turns out it was, in 1969, when in the real world the goodies and baddies weren't so clear.

Fast forward to 2007 and the third installment of the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise. There are, in my estimation, five camps competing for victory with occasionally overlapping allegiances: the East India Trading Company 'wigged out' officers, the Sparrow brigade, Captain Hector Barbossa aka Geoffrey Rush, the squid-faced dude (Davy Jones) and his alien-looking fish squad, and the Singaporean crew. This level of specificity even glosses over a few other shifting alliances. How the hell are we supposed to know who to root for, when squid guy and the Brits are allied, and Sparrow and Barbossa fight side by side? Seriously it's one of the most confusing and convoluted plots I've ever... attempted to follow and I've seen a few art films in my day. But couldn't these five camps just as easily be the Sunnis, Shi'ites, Kurds, Al-Qaeda, and the US forces? Oh excuse me, for that last one, I mean the "Coalition of the Willing."

I'm curious to know how political and cultural historians will look back at this period in time and whether they'd agree with this analogy. Maybe Chow Yun-Fat's crew is a stand-in for Al-Qaeda, and Sparrow and Barbossa are competing fundamentalist imams. Perhaps that also means that Elizabeth's sniveling rejected suitor is General Petraeus, who is willing to make a deal with the devil to keep other (presumably more evil) forces at bay. Or maybe Disney couldn't find any good screenwriters who could make a coherent narrative and it's just another crappy movie.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Random amusement

Some screenshots I've taken recently of things that just had to be preserved. Above I just thought was cute (an 'international' greeting from Flickr). Below, less cute.

When I tried to sign up for an account at Instructables the first time, this was the Java error I got. It's such a wonderful, random and half-profane string of words isn't it? Note to self: hold off on creating Macedonia-Viagra-Wanker username at Instructables.

I'm so flattered that Netflix not only is propositioning me, but there's a time machine involved! Why are they so sure I'll give them 5 out of 5 stars? My DVD rental service is quite cocky.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Legs don't run for office.

The last time I checked, Sarah Palin was a full, complete person. Agreeing with her ideas and trusting her preparation for the vice presidency is another matter altogether. Following the vice presidential debate last night, here are two of the most popular pictures on Yahoo news.

Courtesy of Don Emmert of the Associated Press. And just in case you thought the AP was alone in the objectification game, here comes Reuters from across the way, not to be outdone!

This is disgusting on a number of levels. First of all, who were the pervy photographers who took these pictures? What the hell must've been the inner monologue? "All this talk of a nuclear Iran is so boring. Nothing like a good gams zoom-in to liven things up!" "Americans think they want to know what Palin thinks about same sex marriage, but really they want to look at her red high heels." It's not like the picture contained anything informative, like the Ten Commandments pasted on her shoe or a tattoo of the Alaska state constitution. Where are the accompany shots of Biden's bald spot? Obama's buttocks? McCain's chest hair? C'mon, you know you want to see it!

Second, the media company (in this case, AP and Reuters) signed off at an editorial level on this. I can just imagine the old-boys'-network editor shaking the photographer's hand and clapping him on the back, preferably while chomping a cigar. "Great journalism there, pal! You really nailed the essence of this debate with this shot. You're goin' places. We're sending it out to all the presses!" Then some secretaries threw confetti and popped the cork on the champagne.

And finally, there are the people consuming these pictures en masse. Is it a bunch of teenage boys, staring cross-eyed and drooling out of a corner of their mouths and beating their chests? "Legs!!! Me likey!!" they roar, emailing it to all their friends. "Dude, check out the legs on Sarah Palin. Woowee is she a milf! Bristol's mom has got it going on." Or maybe a bunch of image conscious women, the kinds who get excited about tabloid cover stories like "Best Beach Bodies" and "Whose Cellulite Covered Ass is This?" eagerly clicked on the link, looking to snark on the shape of her legs and the color of heel as it matched her dress. Who knows?

Breaking women down into their respective body parts is demeaning and disrespectful. During the Olympics, one of the most popular photos on Yahoo was a volleyball player's butt with her crossed fingers behind her back. People are greater than the sum of their parts. While I trust the mainstream media not to publish upskirt camera phone pics or gratitutious cleavage shots of Governor Sarah Palin, I wonder how far they're willing to go. Surely they have a greater responsibility than pandering to the lowest common denominator. The cat's out of the bag and there's no way to get AP and Reuters to hit a giant 'undo' button and take these pictures back. So what can we do?

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Songs that make me cry


Be forewarned. I don't seem to experience emotions like many of my fellow women. I can't stand sappy movies, most romantic comedies, and there isn't much in the world that makes me cry. A few songs at various points in my life have brought tears into my eyes with their wrenching lyrics and plaintive melodies. Though you might need to get out a hanky whilst listening to these tunes, you also might be amused by the seemingly random assortment of songs that move me deep down inside.

Ani DiFranco - You Had Time
Lamenting the impending end of a relationship, Ani uses some lovely metaphors to describe her feelings and anticipation of coming home and ending things.
You are a china shop
and I am a bull
You are really good food
and I am full
In other words, "it's not you, it's me." But really, she's so great at portraying a mix of complicated emotions. (full lyrics)

The Clash - Bankrobber
File this one under "random." Joe Strummer sings his heart out about inequality, morality, and the death of his (fictional) bank robbin' daddy. I didn't really understand all the lyrics at the time, and they're really quite good, but like, existential-crisis pondering-social-justice good. I wonder how many other people have cried at this song? (full lyrics)

Coldplay - The Scientist
Nobody said it was easy... but no one ever said it would be so hard, either. Who hasn't wanted to go back to the start at some point, especially when heartache is involved? The video is a work of art itself, comprising one long shot of Chris Martin (the lead singer) in reverse. And he's even singing the lyrics. (full lyrics)

David Bowie - Life on Mars?
OK, I have to confess. I have no idea what this song is about. It's kind of an abstract collection of images that vaguely suggest of despair. Or maybe not.
Now she walks through her sunken dream
To the seat with the clearest view
And she's hooked to the silver screen
But the film is a saddening bore
For she's lived it ten times or more
All I know is something in it deeply resonated with me. Am I just a sucker for pianos and men in blue eyeshadow? Perhaps. (full lyrics)

Dixie Chicks - You Were Mine
There's nothing funny about this song. It's an utterly heartwrenching tale told by a jilted wife who is abandoned by her husband for another woman. While I can't relate to the song's premise, I nevertheless always wince at the lines
I Can Give You Two Good Reasons
To Show You Love's Not Blind
He's Two And She's Four, And You Know They Adore You
So How Can I Tell Them You've Changed Your Mind
Ouch!! Abandoning the kiddies too for some little hussy? "Sometimes I wake up crying at night, and sometimes I scream out your name"... man, talk about simple and evocative lyrics. Now excuse me while I grab a tissue. (full lyrics)

Tracy Chapman - The Promise
In general, I'm not a huge Tracy Chapman fan, but there's something so simple and beautiful in the way she sings this song. It's utterly unpretentious and she sings each word as if it really matters. She's pining for an old lover, but she's not chewing up the scenery in the process. Bravo! (full lyrics)

Bonus: A dance that made me cry
From So You Think You Can Dance. I watched a lot of it last summer. The choreographer dedicated this dance to her father who had just passed away. Very moving, if a bit blurry in this version.

So there you have it, folks. Breakups, heartache, death of loved ones, rage at social injustices... tearful trails to you!