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Sunday, February 28, 2010
The Future Was Always Scary
I wrote a little bit about Karl Dane and his connection to The Whispering Shadow here. That 12-part serial is largely forgotten today, but like many movies made about emerging technology, it treats its subject as spooky and dangerous. In this case, the spooky and dangerous technology was television.

The movie's plot (such as it is) concerns the hunt for "the lost jewels of the Czar" which, for no adequately explained reason, have been hidden in the warehouse of the Empire Transport Company of Los Angeles.

In typical serial fashion, various thugs, goons and ne'er-do-wells take turns stealing the jewels from each other, with the stalwart hero periodically bursting in through the door just in time to get the crap beaten out of him (in fact, he is knocked unconscious so many times I began to worry that he would suffer permanent brain damage).

Anyway, the goons are at the beck and call of a mysterious genius called The Whispering Shadow, who uses the futuristic technology of television to spy on his enemies and / or his own henchmen, no matter where they are. With his sinister television machine, he is also able to project a -- well, a whispering shadow! -- of himself in the vicinity of anyone with whom he wishes to communicate. Again, this being a serial, his conversations usually start with "You fools!" and end with "Do not fail me again!".

But what's interesting here is the screenwriter's misunderstanding of what sending and receiving images remotely would really be like. The idea that a television receiver could simply peek in on any location seems laughable today, but to the public in 1933 it probably did not seem quite as far-fetched.

Similarly, the Whispering Shadow's ability to project an image of himself to a location miles away is also an understandable misreading of television's potential. Without seeing it in action, the idea of television probably seemed vaguely spooky; the actual technology, when it emerged, was less fearful and more easily contained than imagined.

After the war computers carried the same mix of awe and dread that television had. And in movie after movie the notion of a thinking machine was taken far too literally. Computers were invariably depicted in the movies as unformed -- or deformed -- reflections of human sentience. Mechanical minds went bonkers on a regular basis in the movies: from Alphaville to 2001: A Space Odyssey to Westworld to The Demon Seed, a computer had to do little more than pop a vacuum tube in order to go on a killing spree.

(I will exempt Colossus: The Forbin Project from this list of insane computers; after all, Colossus did exactly what it was programmed to do. Created to protect the human race from the risk of nuclear war, Colossus simply carried its orders out to the letter -- enslaving the human species in order to protect it from its own destructive impulses.)

As computers became more common, however, the fear that they were plotting against us began to subside. But as always, new technologies provided us with new things to be afraid of. Which is why Sandra Bullock found herself at the mercy of the dial-up era Internet in 1995's The Net.

But lest you think technophobia is something new, remember that Mary Shelley's 1817 novel Frankenstein was inspired by the discovery that electricity seemed to have an eerie effect on the dead; when an electric charge was applied to a corpse it would often make strange, convulsive movements. One study described the body of an executed criminal suddenly sitting upright when a big jolt of electricity was run through it. To the 18th century reader, this would have seemed like messing around with the divine spark, engaging in the sort of alchemy that Dr. Frankenstein recklessly applied to his creation.

But of course the grand prize for technological anxiety goes to the Egyptian king Thamus. As related in Plato's The Phaedrus:

They say that there dwelt at Naucratis in Egypt one of the old gods of that country, to whom the bird they call Ibis was sacred, and the name of the god himself was Theuth. Among his inventions were number and calculation . . . and, above all, writing. . . . To [the king, Thamus] came Theuth and exhibited his inventions . . . when it came to writing, Theuth declared: "There is an accomplishment, my lord the kind, which will improve both the wisdom and the memory of the Egyptians. I have discovered a sure receipt for memory and wisdom." "Theuth, my paragon of inventors," replied the king, "the discoverer of an art is not the best judge of the good or harm which will accrue to those who practise it. . . . Those who acquire [writing] will cease to exercise their memory and become forgetful.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010
You're Gonna Be Fine, Baby Doll
I can only hope to one day have the kind of close relationship with my own daughter that Nicholas Cage and Chloe Moretz share in this clip from the upcoming film Kick-Ass.

Will I see it on opening day? I think I will.

Maybe I'll see you there.

Sunday, February 21, 2010
"Full Disclosure"
I really can't say enough about Chris Jones' remarkable profile of film critic Roger Ebert for Esquire. The piece avoids the mawkishness and pretense we usually associate with journalism in our postdeluvian age.

What Jones offers us instead is a portrait of a brilliant and decent man, ravaged by cancer and approaching the end of his life, who has found meaning and solace in the things that really matter.

Gene Siskel, we learn, once told him his middle name should be "Full Disclosure", and that was certainly true; but the fact that Ebert is still disclosing -- past the point where many would no longer want to be -- is a testament to the character of the man, and a gift for many of us who grew up seeing his familiar face, and reading the words he wrote.

So in honor of Roger, here's a segment from a 1982 edition of "Sneak Previews". It's great to see Siskel and Ebert back when their show was in its prime, and as a bonus we're treated to a couple of clips from Wayne Wang's terrific debut Chan Is Missing.

Saturday, February 20, 2010
Tim Pawlenty: Fearless Slayer Of Straw Men
Tim Pawlenty wants to be the Republican nominee for President in 2012, and Tim Pawlenty was speaking yesterday at CPAC. Those two facts probably tell you everything you need to know about what his speech was like.

The second-term governor of Minnesota suddenly became everything the right-wing wished him to be. They wanted an outspoken evangelical Christian. Pawlenty, whose religious convictions have never been front-and-center, suddenly walks with Jesus 24/7.

According to the AP article, Pawlenty pointed out that "some people" (which people, exactly?) didn't think he should talk about God in his speech because that wouldn't be "politically correct".

"Hogwash," the governor said defiantly to the straw man he had just set up.

He also declared that if God was good enough for the Founding Father, he ought to be good enough for us.

His pro-God credentials established, Pawlenty moved on. The CPAC crowd also wanted a defense hawk, and Pawlenty obligingly flapped his arms and made shrieking war-like noises. They wanted a tax-cutter, and Pawlenty threw them some red meat on that issue. And they wanted a deficit hawk, and Pawlenty told them that, of course, we can cut taxes and increase defense spending and balance the budget all at once. It's really very simple, and it can be done without making a single difficult choice.

I guess eight years of the Bush administration wasn't enough for these guys.

Thursday, February 11, 2010
"The People Were Momentarily Shocked From Their Daily Stupor By The Sight Of A Balloon-Riding Monkey"
The adventures of Curious George, as reinterpreted by gloomy oddball director Werner Herzog.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010
Karl Dane's Final Bow

The other night I was watching Karl Dane's last screen appearance, in a 1933 Mascot serial called The Whispering Shadow. Dane wasn't onscreen much; he was mostly there for comic relief. He had been a star of the silent era who, like many of his colleagues, fell on hard times when the talkies arrived.

But Dane's journey down was more tragic than most. His guttural Danish accent made him sound like he had marbles in his mouth; his old studio MGM shunned him, even when he asked for work as a carpenter or stagehand. Even small studios had little use for him now. His old Hollywood friends disappeared, and a restaurant that hired him as a waiter let him go when his once-famous name didn't bring in customers.

On April 13, 1934, a pickpocket lifted $18 off him, the last money he had in the world. The next day he shot himself.

Watching him stumble through The Whispering Shadow, playing an oafish radio dispatcher, I imagined that I could see the beaten-down man he had become, see it in the tilt of his head and the way his ungainly body moved, and in the way he struggled and struggled and struggled to spit out his lines.

Maybe not. But maybe.

Ah well, we say, crazy world isn't it, and there has never been a shortage of sad stories. But you wonder sometimes, reading stories like his, why the indifference of the universe must so often translate to the indifference of people. We all like to think we're better than the fair-weather friends who deserted Karl Dane -- but are we?

Monday, February 01, 2010
Tim Pawlenty, Master Hypnotist
Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty wants the Republican nomination for President. That means he has to pander to the right. He has to whisper those sweet words Republican primary voters long to hear. And believe me, he does not disappoint:

Tell us, Tim, what's your plan for the economy?

Congress should reject federal legislation that places additional burdens on growth, such as the proposed health care overhaul, cap-and-trade bill, labor union card check and tax increases. Instead, lawmakers should support policies that promote economic growth. For example, the Bush tax cuts should be made permanent and tax burdens on individuals and businesses should be further reduced.

Ding ding! Tax cuts. That he started his Politico piece by railing against, ahem, BUDGET DEFICITS hardly matters. He said the magic words.

Tax cuts. Like a farm kid hypnotizing a chicken.

Once Pawlenty learned the trick, he couldn't get over how easy it was. Sat there all day in the barnyard, hypnotizing the chickens.

Just a kid, really. Just a kid who knows one dumb trick.

Tear This Dollhouse Down

Last Friday marked the end of the line for Dollhouse, Joss Whedon's low-rated melodrama about human trafficking in the digital age. The usual suspects have been up in arms about the show getting cancelled, saying it just proves that, hey, Whedon's a genius:
Dollhouse has been cancelled right on schedule, i.e. just when Joss Whedon was getting to the point. It is (soon: was) not a show about sex or human trafficking or prostitution. It’s about identity. For the first 20 episodes, we’re meant to believe that Echo is merely a cipher masking Caroline, fighting to regain the identity she sold away. But now, as she struggles to integrate the various identities that the dollhouse has “imprinted” on her brain, we see that it was about Echo all along. And this, of course, is everyone’s struggle: integrating the various identities the world thrusts upon us: consumer, spouse, parent, worker, thinker, artist, daughter, son. And, particularly in the modern world, the tearing pain of choosing among them when we’re told that the freedom of self-definition is the thing we should value most. Whedon is fast becoming one of the great tragic figures in popular culture, a man of huge talent, vision and integrity whose work keeps getting killed before its time.

Meh. It's an interesting analysis, but it doesn't hold up under scrutiny.

I generally like Whedon's writing, but I disagree that his shows tend to get cancelled before they've had a fair chance.

Firefly was a brilliant show that was famously killed by a gaggle of numbnuts Fox execs. But that was the exception. Buffy The Vampire Slayer ran a total of seven seasons on two networks; its spinoff Angel ran five. Dollhouse was renewed for a second season despite its dismal ratings; that the show only began to find its narrative feet at the last minute is the fault of Whedon himself, not the network.

I've complained about the Dollhouse concept's biggest flaw before: we are asked to believe that a large corporation has secretly developed technology that allows the mind of any person to be "imprinted" into the body of any other, as easily as swapping out computer hard drives. I suspect this would require developing several Nobel prize-worthy technologies all at once, but has the corporation in question even patented any of these fantastic processes?

Nah, apparently not.

Anyway, as the series starts, a pretty young woman named Caroline has signed away five years of her life to become a "doll", a person whose mind will be wiped clean and replaced each week with a new personality for a new purpose.

So one week she's a dominatrix, the next week she's a biker chick, the next week an outdoorswoman, etc. Occasionally she is implanted with skill sets that could be more easily (and more cheaply) obtained elsewhere: hostage negotiator or super-spy or backup singer / dancer for a Beyonce-esque diva. Most often, though, she is just rented out to high-class johns to give the man who has everything what he most desires: a hooker who believes in the fantasy even more than he does. Or something.

As a business model, this doesn't make a lot of sense. Like Michael Crichton's Jurassic Park (and its antecedent Westworld), once the questions start, they never stop: how much would each client have to pay each day to keep this operation afloat? How long could such a business be kept secret? How much would you have to pay to maintain that secrecy -- assuming that it could be maintained at all? How could you possibly handle the legal and liability issues? And wouldn't the ability to transfer human minds from one body to another have much bigger implications than renting out bimbos to rich playboys?

To his credit, Whedon eventually quit dancing around these questions and attacked them head-on, building an elaborate conspiracy backstory that retconned the Dollhouse into a sideline operation to a much larger global enterprise. And since this is Joss Whedon, a much larger sinister global enterprise.

Yet in spite of his efforts to bring his story to a slam-bang conclusion, Dollhouse ended as something less than the sum of its parts. Its many, many moving parts. Come for the clunky metaphor, America, stay for the spectacular mess. Too often, that's Whedon. But everyone is pretty, and the dialogue is quick, and the fights are merciless. That has to count for something.

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