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Month: December 2001

I saw the film The Royal Tenenbaums tonight for the second time. The first time I was so rapturously distracted by its production design and frame composition that I didn’t quite get wrapped up in the story. This time I did and I fell in love with the film, just as I did with Rushmore and Bottle Rocket, also by the same team. At this point, I can’t think of a better new film I saw in 2001 than this one. Lord of the Rings and The Man Who Wasn’t There are definitely right up there just behind it, but Tenenbaums takes the cake.

The best new film that wasn’t quite new was the 1999 Japanese film Cure, which I saw first at the Seattle Film Festival and then again at a short run here in town. And the best film I saw that wasn’t new at all was Baraka, in a stunning 70mm print at the festival.

I’ve got the beginnings of an article on Tenenbaums and the other two Anderson-Wilson films running around in my head. Hopefully I’ll make it happen and get Tablet to publish it.

Speaking of Tablet, the link to my column in my 12/21 dispatch, below, was broken thanks to their unfortunate archiving procedures. But I found the file on their site and have fixed the link for posterity.

In any event you can now read my new column, with reviews of Uzumaki, The Don and Bill Show, The Week Before, and Forbidden Tales. I also did a feature article on LOTR director Peter Jackson’s filmography.

The new installment of my film column is online now at Tablet‘s website. Thrill to reviews of Whisper of the Heart, Shag Carpet Sunset, Holly Jolly Justice, and of course Twin Freaks.

As something of a Christmas treat for Dispatches readers, I’ve prepared an Adobe Acrobat ebook of a rather curious old chestnut, suitable for roasting on your open fire. Download and enjoy, if that’s the right word for it, and feel free to post your comments here.

I dispatch, you dispatch, we all dispatch for dispatches.

I’ve added a comment feature to this page. You can now add and read comments for each dispatch using the link that follows the entry. Try it on some recent dispatches and see what you think. I’m using this entry to test the system, so feel free to start with this one.

Today was an excellent day.

This was the day that the guys at Flying Lab rented an entire movie theater so they and their friends could watch The Lord of the Rings in comfort.

The film is fantastic. I’m refusing to engage in the geeky nitpick practice so common in my circle of hashing out just what was wrong with a good film. Here’s what was right:

* The music was very intelligent. I couldn’t hum a single bar of the theme, but it doesn’t matter. What’s so damn smart about the music is how much it underplays the drama. Sure, it gets excited during action scenes. But just listen to the main theme, the music that opened the main titles and established the tone of the film. It wasn’t a big crashing Conan work of bombast–as much as I enjoy Conan‘s bombast. It was somber, even melancholy, and perfectly set the stage for the very deliberate, very nuanced storytelling that followed. Kudos to Howard Shore for another excellent score, much superior to John Williams’ Harry Potter pablum.

* The actors are terrific. Special points to Viggo Mortensen as Aragorn, Ian McKellan as Gandalf, and Elijah Wood as Frodo.

* The film takes itself seriously. Not portentously or overblown. Just seriously, respectfully. It treats the events that unfold not as those of an epic adventure in the grand style, but as a series of very personal, even intimate, challenges. The style is not that of Conan. It’s closer to that of Michael Mann’s Heat, or Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket. It feels like a sober work of historical fiction rather than a crowd-thrilling blockbuster.

* The sense of scale is tremendous. Small people, enormous settings, and massive events.

* The moments of horror are sublime. Perhaps my favorite part in the film is when the elven woman of the woods, played by Cate Blanchette, is tempted to take the ring. Frodo, owing to a magical wound, walks in two worlds: the living and the mystical. As a result, when Galadriel (or however you spell her name) is tempted, what we see is what Frodo sees: her mystic self, her aura perhaps, corrupting and raging in the ego-blast that the ring offers. It’s a powerful, terrible moment as we see what even this wondrous creature is opened to when the ring is near.

* The action is terrific. The battles are fast and furious, full of peril and excitement.

* The production design is superb.

* And on and on.

It’s an amazing achievement. I’m eager for the next installment. I don’t know when I’ve ever seen the like on screen.

But there was another amazing achievement today. I invited thirteen people to see the film with me, and of them eleven also agreed to join me for dinner afterwards. And it all went off without a hitch. I was amazed. I’ve been stressing over the arrangements, worrying that people would show up late or whatever. But there were no problems at all. Even organizing a handful of people for an event can be a trial, let alone a dozen of them. Yet everything went smoothly and it was a grand social occasion for a sizable group of friends.

All told, a glorious day. Compensation for the fact that I only had time for four hours of sleep last night and am exhausted now.

To bed!

So one of the somewhat common refrains I’ve heard about our country’s actions against Afghanistan is that we’re hypocrites for taking this action when our own government has committed various atrocities against civilians of other countries. This baffles and angers me, because I don’t feel that people who make that statement are actually advocating any meaningful course of action. They’re just being scolds, and the statement comes across as a schoolmarmish “well, those people have reasons to hate us.” What exactly are we supposed to do with that alleged understanding? Not fight the Taliban in the pursuit of Al-Queda? I don’t see a meaningful alternative, or even any form of advocacy at all other than “feel bad.”

This same sentiment was well-publicized during the Gulf War, the notion that it was a war fought merely for the sake of America’s interests in oil. I had the exact same reaction then: so what? Opposing Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait was the right thing to do. If our leaders were prompted to do the right thing for the wrong reason, does that mean they made the wrong decision? In other words, does the fact that we failed to act in other similarly outrageous situations (such as Rwanda) mean that, for the sake of consistency, we shouldn’t have acted there either?

The ultimate point of that general concept seems to be that two wrongs make a right. Having acted wrongly once (by omission or commission), we should act wrongly again because at least we’d be acting wrong for the right reasons. My impression is that the people making these statements would rather we hadn’t fought Iraq, and let them take Kuwait, because that would be morally superior to fighting Iraq for the sake of oil. I think the rightness of the act itself trumps the equivocation of its impetus.

The choice this idea offers looks to me like a choice between cowardice and hypocrisy: do nothing and at least be consistently isolationist, or do the right thing some of the time when it’s in our selfish interests. Well you know what? I’d rather be a hypocrite. At least hypocrites are right some of the time.

Or as one commentator put it: the last time I checked, the cruise missiles we sent into Sudan a couple years ago weren’t packed full of screaming, innocent people.

More work at Flying Lab today. I’m wrestling with the design for the strategic part of the Delta Green computer game. There’s a reasonably Cool New Feature I want to implement, and I haven’t yet figured it out. But I did figure out enough to recognize that I was putting some pointless busywork into the gameplay, and I stripped it out. Small steps. Today I found out that part of my job on the game is designing the actual game system–stats, skills, chance to hit, that sort of thing. Much of that stuff is invisible to the player, of course, since the program does all the crunching, and its needs are very different than those of a tabletop RPG. It’ll be interesting work, and there’s a heck of a lot of it.

One side benefit: Flying Lab rented a movie theater for Wednesday so we can watch Lord of the Rings free from the clamor of the public. I’ve got a wallet full of tickets that I’ve begun handing out, like Johnny Geekyseed. It’s going to be fun.

I’m really looking forward to LOTR, and it’s not because I love the book. I read it as a kid, a couple times, and enjoyed it. The book’s emphasis on melancholy and sacrifice stayed with me even as the details of the story and characters fell away. I haven’t cracked the cover in seventeen years. In that time, my appetite for swords & sorcery has vanished. Elves, longbows, dragons, all that stuff pretty much leaves me cold.

No, the reason I’ve been excited about LOTR is because it’s by Peter Jackson, a filmmaker who has never let me down. My first exposure to his work was in 1994, when I was visiting a friend in Scotland. He mentioned a film he’d seen called Meet the Feebles, and it sounded mind-blowing: an x-rated version of The Muppet Show. Lo and behold, his corner video store had a copy so we brought it back to his place and I watched it.

The damn thing was amazing. I mean, sure: it’s a gross-out parody of the muppets. It’s set backstage at a television variety show, rife with sex, drugs, and violence, and it’s an all-muppet cast. It’s very funny, very gross, often shocking in its complete over-the-top spectacle. There’s the lizard smack junkie, a Vietnam vet who flashes back to his capture by the Viet Cong (played by buck-toothed rabbits, of course), complete with a Deer Hunter scene of Russian roulette. There’s the lovestruck hippo, the gangster walrus, the star rabbit with VD, and on and on.

But it’s easy to just focus on the concept and ignore the execution. This guy, Peter Jackson, a low-budget indie filmmaker in New Zealand making slapstick-gore zombie movies, decides to make a film with an all-muppet cast. He’s not a puppeteer or anything. New Zealand isn’t a particular haven for puppetry. It’s just a funny idea for a film, a joke you make at a bar with friends. But he does it. He puts together a team, they figure out how to make the muppets, they build the sets, they shoot the whole thing, and it comes together beautifully. Strictly from a technical standpoint, it was an amazing exercise in logistics and craft.

From there he made Heavenly Creatures, an art-house hit here that could only have been made successfully by a director immersed in genre, someone not afraid to take a real-life story and imbue it with a layer of special-effects fantasy that told the story the way it needed to be told without alienating the art-film audience in the process. An amazing feat, and it showed storytelling with real emotion and empathy.

Then he did The Frighteners, a film I just loved. It’s a cheeseball horror comedy with Michael J. Fox as a guy who can interact with ghosts. But in its way, it’s breathtaking. There’s a fantastic fight scene at one point with two humans struggling and two ghosts struggling, all in the same location. The two fights are independent, and the humans don’t know the ghosts are there. But it’s all choreographed beautifully, and the effect is remarkable. It sticks with me because it’s a visionary portrayal of mortal and spiritual struggle. I know, it’s just a funny fight scene. But that notion of a simultaneous two-level conflict among the living and the dead was, at its core, a powerful idea. It’s even worked its way into some of my writing.

It’s also one of the few CGI-heavy films whose CGI really works for me. Just as with Feebles, Jackson built a team, learned the ropes, and did fantastic work. He created his own special-effects company in New Zealand, WETA, and their work on Frighteners was better than ILM would have done.

There’s a laserdisc edition of The Frighteners that has a four-hour making-of documentary. That’s right: four hours. Twice as long as the film itself. And it’s riveting. The only making-of film I’ve seen that’s better is Hearts of Darkness, for very different reasons.

To me, The Frighteners just confirmed what Meet the Feebles already proved: Peter Jackson is better at putting technical skill to the service of story than anyone else working, even those Matrix guys. He has the vision, the charisma, and the dedication to make incredible things happen on his own terms, and on top of all that he’s a gifted storyteller.

That’s why I’m looking forward to Lord of the Rings. Not for Tolkein half so much as for Jackson. If you’ve got the eyes to see it, you’ll realize that this guy is the real deal. Plenty of people have watched Feebles and laughed at the jokes. I think few appreciated the amazing accomplishment that film was, for all that the concept was a frat-house gag. I doubt they’ll miss it this time, though. LOTR should, by all rights, give Jackson the same blank check that Spielberg gets. He’s that good. And Spielberg never made a film with the maturity, intensity, and vision of Heavenly Creatures.

Watch this guy. He’s got some of the best films we’ll ever see still waiting inside him. I’m not saying that LOTR is going to be one of them–I dunno. But my faith in Jackson is substantial.

I bought a car.

My 1990 T-Bird, acquired from Scott Glancy in April for one dollar (and worth every penny!), bit the dust about a week and a half ago. I thought about repairing it, but the darn thing already had so many problems that I figured I’d be better off putting the money into something more solid.

My plans for buying another junker for $500 quickly escalated into looking for cars in the $2000-$3000 range. Still crud by some standards, but solid enough to last a few years. About the same price as my computer, actually.

What I finally settled on, and just picked up this afternoon, is a 1983 Saab 900. Yeah, it’s seven years older than the T-Bird. But damn it’s in great shape. Even though it’s an eighteen-year-old car, it only has 130,000 miles on it–do the math. This car has not seen nearly as much road as its age would suggest.

And it’s beautiful. The body is in perfect shape, the original paint looks fabulous, and the interior is almost spotless. Really amazing condition. It’s even got the original Saab mini-spare and tool kit, complete with tube of color-matched body paint, and the manuals. In the manuals I found service records for the first 75,000 miles, which show that the original owner (a guy in San Diego) was responsible and regular about getting it serviced. After that it’s a blank, unfortunately, but at least it had a happy childhood. I know from the title search I did that it spent its last several years as a commercial vehicle of some sort. I’m guessing it belonged to a small company around town, either as an office car or for small deliveries. It’s a two-door hatchback, and when you drop the back seat it’s incredibly spacious for cargo.

I just took it on the interstate for some late-night driving, and it’s such a pleasure. Rock solid feel, great handling, and the five-speed stick-shift really lets you punch it just the way you want. When I started going up a hill, I dropped it into fourth and floored the pedal and actually accelerated to 85 going uphill–something I’m not used to doing in any meaningful way with the cars I’ve driven in the past. It’s just a four-cylinder engine, but it really seems to have what it needs for the road.

My favorite car up until now was a 1978 Datsun B210 that my parents bought used in the late 1980s. It was small and kind of weak but handled pretty well. By comparison, though, it felt really light and insubstantial. This Saab feels heavier, more massive, and it’s a comforting sort of weight.

My impression driving this thing sounds like ad copy: this car likes to drive. It really does. Driving around town, I started dropping it to second and speeding into turns at intersections, and it took those corners like a champ. No rock and roll, just steady power. What a ride!

I must admit, however foolish it sounds: my taste for driving really changed from playing a lot of Test Drive V-Rally for the Sega Dreamcast. It’s a fantastic driving game, and it’s all about racing on rural roads with real-life compact street models like this Saab. My experience playing that game actually transferred to some extent to my real-life driving, even before I got the Saab. I feel much more confident about what I can do with a car, and I’ve put in some time driving that way to develop that confidence. Not recklessly, but just with the full belief that I know what I’m doing enough to make the car do what I want it to do. It’s a great feeling. I understand now why people get obsessive about driving. Once it stops just being absent-minded transport and becomes something you invest your brain and muscle memory into, there are real rewards to the experience.

And in a happy twist, when I got back to my studio from the dealership, the car next to me was a late-model Saab. As I was fussing over my car, the driver of that car came out of the building and we started talking. He’s a Saab lover, and recommended a Saab-only service shop that he’s had good experiences with. Sometime early next year I hope to take it by there to get it checked out and see what kind of work I might should invest in it.

God knows, something awful could happen with this car. It’s over half as old as I am. Maybe it’s just waiting to devour its own transmission or something. But I’m hopeful, because it drives like a dream and looks even better. We’ll see.

Biggest downside: no stereo. Not even any *speakers*. I checked the rear speaker grilles and there’s nothing under them. I need to take a flashlight to them and see if the wiring is there or if the poor thing came from the factory without any sound system at all, which seems really unlikely. Assuming the car checks out with the shop in the spring, I’ll look at investing some money into that. Because jeez, I need a radio in that car if nothing else. I suspect that someone put a good sound system in there and then took it out when they sold it, because the radio slot in the dashboard has what looks very much to be an aftermarket cover. If I’m right, it means someone put good speakers and a stereo in there and yanked them before trading it in, in which case it shouldn’t be too big of a deal to get them replaced.

Anyway, that’s for later. I’m just pleased to have a swell car.

A couple years ago, the documentary Project Grizzly chronicled Canadian Troy Hurtibuse’s ten-year, $150,000 quest to develop a suit of armor powerful enough to protect the wearer from an attack by a grizzly bear.

On December 9, the rubber meets the road. An American animal trainer is bringing his adult Kodiak bear and, under allegedly controlled conditions, the bear will attack Troy.

I would be remiss if I did not mention that the suit’s construction materials include 2,289 meters of duct tape.

The details are online at the site of the Annals of Improbable Research.

We’ve announced the Delta Green computer game, and you can read more about it at the software company’s web site. I spent the day there yesterday planning the press campaign, brainstorming revisions to the strategic-mode design document, and possibly buying a car from one of the ArtCo team, the trio of graphic artists who work at Flying Lab.

Something odd happened this morning. I was asleep, and I’d guess it was around 4am. A dream had just finished, and I was in a light sleep, slightly aware of my surroundings in bed. Then I heard, quite clearly, a voice say: “John?”

There wasn’t anybody else in the room, or in the basement for that matter. It sounded like a woman’s voice, but the sound was slightly slowed-down and unreal. But it did not at all have the quality of a dream, nor was it accompanied by any dream imagery. In fact, all it did was bring me the rest of the way out of sleep into full consciousness.

Because, of course, I was terrified. My immediate reaction was panic. I burrowed further under the covers and thought about anything and everything but the voice I’d just heard. I was completely freaked. After a couple of minutes the panic passed, but even then I didn’t want to think about it. The experience was freaky as all heck.

The second installment of my movie column is up now at Tablet‘s site. Confusingly, it’s titled “Film Foursome” in the paper and “Film Frenzy” on the site. Both titles are pretty lame. I just can’t come up with a better title than “The Four Somethings,” and that lacks the crucial words “film” or “movie” that would actually indicate what the column was about. Oh well. Give it a read.

For my next column, I used DFILM’s MovieMaker feature to make a short animated film. It’s a very simple process that takes about ten minutes. Really, it’s sort of a glorified electronic greeting card, but as those things go it’s pretty impressive. Take a look at my lame effort, complete with embarrassing typo in the first line of dialogue. Be warned it’s full of Seattle in-jokes that are meaningless and unfunny to the rest of the world.