31 May 2005

I'm trying to gently re-adjust to my normal life after a great weekend with great people...

It appears that we now know the identity of Deep Throat. The earliest readers of this blog might remember my try at guessing his identity. I thought it was Kissinger (mainly because Kissinger is an easy character to weave conspiracies around).

Now, I'm feeling kind of empty. I've never gotten in to the JFK conspiracy theories, and there's nothing else that captures my imagination. Does anyone have any suggestions for new conspiracies worth investigating?

25 May 2005

Going into Episode III I wasn't sure if I was hoping for it to be spectacularly bad (we'd brought a bit of whiskey to the theater), or surprisingly good.

As it turns out, I got the best of both worlds. Most of the first half was about as bad as could be hoped, and most of the second half was as good as could be hoped (for a film written and directed by Mr. Lucas). It would have been hard to screw up the material from the second half, but you never know.

24 May 2005

Another day, another list of somebody’s hundred favorite movies of all time. I’m feeling left out, so here's mine:
Amadeus, Barry Lyndon, Being John Malkovich, Blue Velvet, Boogie Nights, The Bourne Identity, Breaking the Waves, Bringing Up Baby, A Canterbury Tale, Casablanca, Chinatown, Chungking Express, Citizen Kane, Closer, The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Crumb, Dancer in the Dark, Duck Amuck, Ed Wood, 8 1/2, The Empire Strikes Back, Eyes Wide Shut, Fallen Angels, Fast Cheap and Out of Control, Fitzcarraldo, Garden State, Gates of Heaven, The Godfather Trilogy, The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, Grand Illusion, A Hard Day’s Night, High Fidelity, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, It’s a Wonderful Life, Jules and Jim, Kill Bill, L.A. Confidential, La Strada, Last Tango in Paris, The Last Temptation of Christ, Lawrence of Arabia, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, The Limey, The Long Goodbye, Malcolm X, Manhattan, Mary Poppins, McCabe and Mrs. Miller, Memento, Miller’s Crossing, Monty Python and the Holy Grail, The Muppet Movie, North by Northwest, Orpheus, The Passion of Joan of Arc, Persona, Pink Floyd The Wall, The Princess Bride, Psycho, Pulp Fiction, The Purple Rose of Cairo, Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Red Shoes, The Return of the King, The Ring, Saving Private Ryan, Say Anything, Scarface, The Searchers, The Seven Samurai, The Shining, The Silence of the Lambs, Singin’ in the Rain, Sleeping Beauty, Some Like it Hot, Spellbound, Spirited Away, A Star is Born, Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan, Sunrise, Sunset Boulevard, Taxi Driver, Thief, The Third Man, This is Spinal Tap, Throne of Blood, Touch of Evil, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, 25th Hour, 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Untouchables, The Usual Suspects, Vanilla Sky, Vertigo, What’s Opera, Doc?, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, and Young Frankenstein.
If you’ve got a Netflix subscription that isn’t doing much, well, here you go.
Here are a few choice shots of Tom Cruise on Oprah. I love this guy.

18 May 2005

I hope everyone is ready to see the new Star Wars!

No, not the movie. I'm talking about the new proposals from the Pentagon about militarizing space. The people who brought us the $100 billion missile defense system that doesn't work now want ten times that amount to do the following things:

-Make a space plane that could strike at any target within 45 minutes
-Make a big laser
-throw metal cylinders at countries so fast that the impact is similar to that of a tactical nuclear weapon (this project is actually named "Rods from God")
-attack and defend satellites

The General in charge of all this nonsense sums it up like so: "We must establish and maintain space superiority. It's the American way of fighting... Space superiority is not our birthright, but it is our destiny."

Well, if it's our destiny, then I guess we have to go along. And then we can threaten rogue nations with Rods from God if they're not nice.

15 May 2005

I've had a major outdoors adventure nearly every other weekend for several months now -- today, I ascended Sandia Peak with a running partner after we were told by several forest service people that the trail was impassable. We got off the trail and had to vertically ascend a skree field in 3 foot deep snow. It was great. Two weeks ago, I "bonked" (i.e. my muscles began not working, due to exhaustion, dehydration, and a lack of glucose and electrolytes) after running up a big hill. That was great too. At this rate, I know there will be a lot of fun in Tahoe.

14 May 2005

Notes from Lincoln Center:

1. I've realized that I love Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger because their films do the same thing for me, as a quasi-adult, that Disney did when I was younger. Imagine a Walt Disney—the Disney of Mary Poppins—whose live-action films were imbued with a buried awareness of sex and death, and you'll have an idea of the weird appeal of the Archers.

2. Between 1943 and 1948, Powell and Pressburger directed The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, A Canterbury Tale, I Know Where I'm Going!, A Matter of Life and Death, Black Narcissus, and The Red Shoes. This string of six masterpieces in six years is, I think, easily the greatest run in movie history; I know of no other director who matches it. (By way of comparison, six years was the average time that elapsed between movies in the last three decades of Kubrick's career.)

3. Besides The Red Shoes, my favorite of the bunch is currently A Canterbury Tale, which is practically a lost movie: it only has a measly 345 votes on imdb.com (compared to, say, 66,080 for Casablanca). Yet it's almost unbelievably wonderful. The featherlight plot harks back to Chaucer but also looks ahead to the New Wave, with its visual zest, greediness for location detail, and willingness to take happy digressions. It also features, in the person of Shelia Sim, one of most appealing ingenues I've ever seen. It's a movie that the young Wong Kari-Wai would have loved.

4. I Know Where I'm Going! is even better than when I blogged about it a year and a half ago, funnier, more generous, more exciting. A Matter of Life and Death, in which David Niven begs for his life before a heavenly tribunal, is an honest-to-god, archetypal movie-palace movie that taps into the basic reasons why we go to the movies in the first place, and features some drop-dead classic lines. (A heavenly messenger, moving from a black-and-white afterlife to the world of men, says, "One is starved for Technicolor up there!" Who needs Wim Wenders?)

5. The later films are interesting and often wonderful, but not quite as good. The Tales of Hoffman has some brilliant sequences, and shows off Moira Shearer's abilities as a dancer to far greater effect than The Red Shoes, but it also contains the first dull stretches I've ever seen in a movie by Powell and Pressburger. Gone to Earth is involving and powerful while you're watching it, and it contains a fine performance by Cyril Cusack, but it's strangely impersonal, as if Powell and Pressburger weren't quite sure what to do with the material they'd chosen. The evidently hasty Oh...Rosalinda!! is something of an embarrassment, but it's a movie I wouldn’t have missed for the world.

Tomorrow I'm off to see Colonel Blimp, and maybe A Matter of Life and Death for the second time. It's strange: these movies make me want to go out and live life to the fullest, and yet I'm spending most of my time in a darkened theater. Is that ironic?
The time has finally come for me to come out of my hole and look for my shadow. And since this is California, of course it's there, which means we'll have 20 more weeks of summer!

I've been locked up in the library for most of the last six weeks, studying for my qualifying exam. I went about taking the qual in a somewhat unorthodox manner: my major topic had never been done before, one of my committee is not a Berkeley professor, and my outside examiner was the only questioner on one of my topics (usually the outside member just sits there silent the whole time). The studying process was very similar to that for the Cambridge exams: memorize a whole lot of stuff in a short time. In the actual qual we didn't get through very many questions because the math professors didn't understand the CS topic and kept asking questions, and the CS professor didn't understand the math topic and kept asking questions. I passed, so now I have no responsibilities for at least three more years.

The short-term plan now is to take two weeks off and do absolutely nothing, and then start work for the summer. I'll be working at HP Labs in Palo Alto, doing cryptography research. In answer to the question that immediately came to your mind, yes, I did do a little bit of name-dropping: I told my boss-to-be that Hendrik Lenstra (a former Berkeley professor) recommended him to me as an expert in my field. In fact, the only association Flora has with the job is that I'll be driving her car to work for the second half of the summer while she's in Spain. Thanks Flora! (In the meantime I'm renting a purple Kia with 100,000 miles on it.)

Speaking of which, I went out to the city last night with Flora and her friends to celebrate Flora's graduation from public policy school. They started out at a bar on top of Nob Hill, and given my injured knee I certainly wasn't going to hike up the hill from the BART stop. I was hunting around for a taxi, and then I had the brilliant idea to take the cable car -- it was right there, went exactly where I was going, was leaving right away, and would be cheaper than a taxi. Unfortunately the plan went awry when Flora called and told me they were on their way to the Mission. So I scuttled the plan and joined them in the Mission, where I found that the rest of the group consisted of about a dozen attractive women. Sadly, all of them were either married or in serious relationships -- including the one who was (very obviously) hitting on me. I wasn't quite sure what to make of that.

In other news, our house is now temporarily home to three adorable little kittens. One of Rosie's kids (she tutors high school students) was fostering them and brought them over one day, and we all fell in love with them and decided to host them next. They are about two months old; when they get a little bigger they will be spayed and then put up for permanent adoption. In the meantime they frolic about and get into all sorts of trouble. One has the potential to be as fierce as Tilly (our cat last year) but the other two are very sweet.

Oh yes, the injured knee. Two weeks ago I was just walking up the stairs and all of a sudden I felt sharp pain shooting through my knee. The pain returned whenever I tried to bend the knee, and the next day it was all stiff and swollen. The pain has subsided a bit, but other than that it's not much better. UHS has been useless, and it's been a serious inconvenience trying to get around -- the bus doesn't really go where I need to go and is unreliable anyway, and walking everywhere doesn't fit the doctor's prescription of "stay off it." Worst of all, I haven't been able to bike or run, usually my only forms of exercise. I was really bummed out about this, but then last week I made the serindipitous discovery that there's a public pool three blocks from my house -- so I've taken up swimming, which is great. (Though I'm awful at it.) I hope the knee gets better in time for Tahoe -- I really want to go hiking!

My sister comes to visit next Tuesday, so we'll be partying it up for a few days. We already have plans for a "sibling dinner" (a housemate's brother is in town as well, and two others have local siblings) and a baseball game, and perhaps a night out on the town...it's great having a sister who's 21! Also there are plans to buy me nicer-looking clothes and new glasses. (I'll buy, she'll choose.)
The Pentagon released the list of proposed base closures yesterday, and for a lot of people in New Mexico, the sky is now falling. Clovis, on the Texas border, is set to lose its air base. This represents a direct loss of 20% of the city's jobs. According to some estimates, Clovis will be the hardest-hit community, per capita, in the country. We're doing everything we can to prevent the closure, but we don't know if we'll succeed.

I wholeheartedly support the goal of closing excess bases, but in our system, politicians have a duty to protect the government spending that comes to their communities. Bases are the most coveted type of government pork, because they provide so many jobs and so much money.

What do the communities with the bases targeted for closure have to look forward to? Well, environmental ruin, for one thing. It seems that closed bases are so expensive to clean up that it takes decades to convert them into something useful.

08 May 2005

I also saw Hitchhiker's Guide this week. I'm sad to report that for the first time in my life I'm that guy, you know the one who can't like the movie cause the book was so much better. I didn't like seeing something that dear to me turned into a string of GWB jokes and romantic comedy.

Or maybe it's just that I've grown up and wouldn't love the books as much if I met them for the first time.

Or perhaps there's something wrong about seeing something new, but where you already know half the lines. You don't get the joy of discovery or the joy of recognition.

They did, however, do a pretty good job of casting. In particular, vis-a-vis Tricia McMillian, I wish more movies made an effort to have actresses who are simultanously dorky look and really cute. Slate has a review of another film this week which has a line that nails what I mean:
she's just the sort of beauty whose self-effacing vibe would make her less than magnetic to really handsome guys and madly irresistible to nerds—who think that maybe, just maybe, they'd have a shot.
Believe it or not, I went on a date to Kill Bill Vol. I AND II at the Castro theater. I think this is number 3 on the most time I spent in a movie theater (after The Godfather Part 1 and 2 and Branaugh's Hamlet).

I finally have an opinion on Vol. 1. If the gross dial was turned from 11 down to 9 or 8 I would absolutely love the movie. As it is, there's just too much of it I find unpleasent. But the moments. There were just so many times I'd start smiling 5 seconds before they came, there are just so many perfect little moments in that film.

I didn't think that Vol. 2 held up well in comparison to Vol. 1. I still think Vol. 2 is the better film, but seeing it right after Vol. 1 made it look so muted in comparison.

On the other hand, my date -who hadn't seen either before- is not able to distinguish the two and now thinks of them as one continuous film. I found it very very hard to do that, because they feel so different to me.

Incidentally I am highly annoyed that iTunes music store doesn't have the Nancy Sinatra "I Shot My Baby (Bang Bang)." I want to pay for music but the stupid music companies won't let me.
Several weeks ago I went to a math conference in Banff, Alberta. Firstly, I highly recommend the Canadian Rockies if you get a chance to visit. Not only, are they striking giant mountains with sweeping glacial vallies, they differ from the American Rockies in that they are mostly sendimentary (sandstone and limestone). The limestone means that there are all these trees growing out of the rock in bizarrely improbably locations on the montains, and both kinds of sendimentary rock mean that there are these sawlike erosian patterns along the peaks, and strange lines running accross all the mountains.

Coincidentally, at the same time that we were there, there was a conference for animated story-boarders. I think it was Calarts graduating students and proffessionals. The first night at dinner, afterwards there was a speaker in the dining hall. It took quite a while for us to figure out who he was or what the conference was, but as it turns out he is a top story-boarder for Pixar.

For those of us who didn't know, story-boarding is the step between the script and actual animation. In a live-action film much of the interesting interpretations are done by actors. But in animation, it's the story-boarders who decide which characters will look which direction, what the scuffle will actually look like, which schools of fish will go accross the screen in which order, etc.

This man was the head of story for Finding Nemo. Anyway, the most intersting thing I found out was an answer to the question Alec and I have long asked: "Why are all Pixar films so good, and every other film with that many writers and directors suck?" This guy said that the biggest difference between Pixar and the other large animation studios he'd worked at (in television, and with Dreamworks), is that at Pixar there's always one particular person who has written the story and is responsible for holding everything up to their vision. The people making the film know whose story it is, and what story they're trying to tell. It isn't done by committee even if the credits were done by committee (before The Incredibles).

07 May 2005

I threw a party at my new apartment last night, which was quite a success, even though it meant that I had to miss Martin Scorsese's introduction of The Red Shoes at Lincoln Center. (Would I have cancelled the party if I had realized this beforehand? Uh…no…of course not...) In any case, interested New York blog readers can find me this weekend at the following events:
Saturday May 7:
Oh...Rosalinda! at 3:45
An Evening With Thelma Schoonmaker at 6:00
Peeping Tom at 8:30

Sunday May 8:
The Thief of Bagdad at 1:00
The Red Shoes at 3:15
The Tales of Hoffmann at 8:00
I know, it's crazy. But I've got to gorge myself while I can. If you've never seen a movie by Powell and Pressburger, you probably have no idea what I'm talking about. But if you do know what I'm talking about, and if you're in New York this weekend, you really have no excuse.

05 May 2005

I'm blogging this story (from Roger Ebert's latest column) only because it makes me laugh helplessly, and because it's a rare example of a more-or-less perfect anecdote:
Q. I just finished reading your review of "Kung Fu Hustle" and I have to know, what is Jack Lemmon's story about seeing Klaus Kinski buying a hatchet at Ace Hardware?

A. Jack Lemmon told me that he was in line at Ace Hardware in Beverly Hills, and the sales clerk kept looking past him. "I may not be the biggest star in the world" he said, "but, jeez, usually when I stand in line, the clerk will notice me. I turned around, and there was Klaus Kinski with an ax."

03 May 2005

Well, it looks like I'm not going to be writing my novel this month:

Michael Powell: Beauty Unending opens this Friday at the Walter Reade Theater in Lincoln Center. It's mind-boggling: a full retrospective of the work of the man who was, quite simply, the best, most inventive, most abundant director to ever work in movies, and one of the best artists to work in any medium. It's a crime that more of his films aren't available on DVD, but they're all here: The Red Shoes, of course, but also The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, Black Narcissus, I Know Where I'm Going, and many, many more that I haven't seen, notably The Tales of Hoffman and A Matter of Life and Death.

You know, almost three years ago, I posted a list of my favorite movies to this blog. I'm somewhat reassured to see that the list hasn't changed that much: they've been reordered a bit, that's all, and Citizen Kane had to make room for Lawrence of Arabia. Back then, I placed The Red Shoes fourth. These days, it's number one, most of the time. I've increasingly come to see it as a life-changer, one of the few works of art that consoles me when I worry that I'll never be much of an artist. There's enough beauty in The Red Shoes to make my own lack of a contribution almost bearable; as long as this movie exists, the world can get along without me, for a while longer, anyway.

Anyway: a month of great movies at the Walter Reade Theater. Over the next few weeks, I plan to see them all. Won't you come join me?