Tag Archives: Film

The Tunisian Frank Sinatra

My friend Claire Belhassine, whom I met through Cassie after they met at London Film School, recently released her directorial debut documentary Papa Hédi

…a 21st century portrait of one of Tunisia’s best loved musicians, Hédi Jouini, through the eyes of his British Granddaughter. A contemporary documentary searching for traces of Hédi’s spirit, we uncover via encounters with colleagues, family and cultural commentators his public and private legacy and discover why his music still lives on today.

Claire was in her late 20s when she discovered that her grandfather was the Frank Sinatra of the Arab World. Hédi Jouini’s songs and compositions still resonate twenty years after his death. Reprised as the theme tune for a popular Tunisian soap opera and the holding music for Tunisia’s leading mobile network; covered by pop singers, including international superstar Shakira; and sung by 5 year old street kids as they kick their footballs back and forth – they are part of the TUNISIAN STORY.

After his death, Papa Hedi’s six children stopped talking to each other. Behind the usual story of siblings fighting over their inheritance, lies the powerful dynamic of men’s and women’s roles in 1930’s Tunis and the sad but often funny story of Papa Hédi’s divided family – separated across continents, fighting over royalties, competing to define their father’s legacy.

The film was an official selection of California Arab Film Festival, with screenings in San Jose and Berkeley. Claire contacted Cassie to ask if she would attend the screenings and film various interviews and Q&A sessions. Cassie was filming in LA the weekend of the San Jose screening (with the good camera, sadly) so it fell to me to try and get what they wanted. So I drove down and met up with the festival organizers to get what Claire wanted.

(I had to use GPS because I do not know the way to San Jose.)

Before the screening, there was a performance of some of Hédi Jouini’s songs by a band of Tunisian musicians. They were playing a variety of instruments, some recognisable, some not. I asked the band leader Al Kallel what they were:

  • Nay, a kind of cane flute
  • Qanun, a stringed lap instrument like a zither or autoharp
  • Violin
  • Oud, a stringed instrument related to the similar-looking and -sounding lute.
  • Tar, a kind of drum
  • Riq, a kind of tambourine

They played five or six songs, very much in the Tunisian/Arabic style, with distinctive quavering vocals and completely alien (to me) structures. They weren’t alien to the packed audience at the screening, however. When the band leader listed the songs they would be playing, many people reacted with delight, and at various points they were clapping along with what I assumed to be the chorus. Al sang, and Jouini’s daughter Samia accompanied him, to great effect.

A little more about the audience. They were a mixture of local arts crowd, and Tunisian folks. It was nice to see quite a few people with white American partners. For the most part they were people who were clearly fans of Jouini and his music. The film did not disappoint them. Music in the film was obviously mostly by Hédi Jouini himself, or covers of his most beloved songs by various people, including one of his sons who reinterpreted them in a jazz style. One of my favourite moments was a group of kids on the street all singing one particular song (“Destiny”), which had been used as the theme for a popular TV melodrama. In addition to that, Claire’s husband Francois (aka Franz Kirmann) provided some excellent atmospheric music from his project Piano Interrupted, a collaboration between him and musician and composer Tom Hodge. This took the form of samples of the score, broken down, reversed and otherwise manipulated to create some very effective moments.

The film had various locations. Tunis, obviously. Paris, which has a large Tunisian community. Claire’s travels brought her to San Francisco to interview her aunt Samia, and stayed with Cassie and I in our flat up on the hill in Noe Valley. While there, she took some lovely shots of SF from our roof, and I spotted these straightaway in the film – one looking down at 25th Street and the city beyond, and one looking up the foggy hill toward my beloved Sutro Tower.

The film followed Claire as she went in search of her relatives and the places they were born and raised. One touching moment showed her father visiting the apartment where he lived for most of his childhood. One of the themes was estrangement from family, but there were several amusing moments of siblings bickering while remembering their father. It was a thoughtful, touching and revealing film, which said a lot about the differences in culture between Jouini as a famous man in a male-centric world, as a Muslim married to a Jewish woman, and as a driven poet and artist.

After the film, I quickly packed up and dashed out to get some audience reactions and interviews. Al cornered some people in the lobby, and we shot some clips of them saying what they liked about the film. Reactions were mostly positive (I could tell, even when they were speaking Arabic) – in fact the only negatives were that the film didn’t have enough of Jouini’s music, or didn’t go into enough detail about one thing or another. People wanted more!

At the second screening in Berkeley, the setup was pretty much the same, only this time there was a Q&A session after the film with Claire’s father and Aunt Samia. It was a treat to see them do the sibling bickering live, and it was a treat to be able to see this film, see the folks in it up close and talk to them, hear the audience’s reactions, and be a part of people’s enjoyment of this Tunisian story. Jouini has  a French Wikipedia page, no English one, but you can see the huge list of songs he wrote. It’s no wonder he was so well known and beloved in his home country. This film gave a very personal insight into a legend.

Totally unrelated anecdote. After the first screening and interviews, I hadn’t eaten, so before hitting the road I went to diner chain Johnny Rockets for a burger and ice tea. I was sat in my red vinyl padded booth, enjoying my burger, checking out the non-functional vintage tabletop jukebox, when a group of young folks came in. They looked like they’d been studying or something – they all had big backpacks full of what looked like binders and so on. They were an interesting mix of demographics, but they all had something in common. They all looked kinda nerdy.

They sat in the big corner booth behind me, so I couldn’t see what they were doing. When I finished my meal and stood up to leave, I turned and saw they they each had a big spread of cards in front of them, and they were playing what I guess was Magic: The Gathering. Nice to think they could all just hang out in the diner and play what looks like a complex but social game.

Family, community, arts, entertainment, social cohesion. All that.

Videoing The Day-to-day

This article on Retro Thing makes a point about not documenting the mundane in our lives. I think we document more than ever, but not always the regular stuff – just crazy or unusual stuff, or images which don’t document rather than say, “ooh look how that ivy grows on that wall”, or “ooh, look at the mist“. The article goes on to link to this fascinating video by photographer Hans Sipma – a time-lapse tour of Vancouver in the mid-1970’s.

I’ve been playing around with our video camera and the camcorder on my new phone recently. For a lack of better ideas, I videoed some journeys. It was just a case of switching on the camera and seeing what came out of it. First was this bus journey from Regents Street to Camden Town in January 2012.

Wobbly, handheld, and through a scratched and steamy upstairs front window. Plus the route doesn’t have much in the way of sights or landmarks, especially at night. But again, this isn’t about tour videos – it’s about just recording a mundane journey.

This next one was less linear, based on a engineering boat tour around and under the Bay Bridge – both the old and the as yet-unfinished new.

Just the other day, I was playing with my new phone, and decided to capture my daily bus commute over the Bay Bridge (yes, the Bay Bridge is a bit of a feature around here) from the toll plaza to the Transbay terminal. This was taken by holding the phone up against the window, and letting it roll. This meant that it was looking out at 90° from the bus, so you don’t get to see what’s up ahead, only what is directly to the side. You don’t get to see the great views of San Francisco, or the height of the new bridge tower. However, it’s an interesting snapshot – I think the limitation of field of view makes a window through which you just see snippets.

Finally, here’s a video taken from a car driving through the town centre of my birthplace of Bedford, UK. I don’t think I’m in it – frankly I’d rather not know if I was. Some landmarks:

  • Green 172 bus?
  • C&A
  • Eastern Electricity
  • The H Samuel where my parents bought me the watch I have on at this moment.
  • The Woolworths where I worked on and off for many years.
  • Some dodgy moustaches
  • Beales
  • Folks hanging around opposite the library
  • Austin Princess with the boot open – aww yissssss
  • Round past the church to the High Street, then left along the river and into the leafy streets south of Goldington Road.
  • At 11:15, a couple of those Jaws/Hitchcock dolly zoom shots.
Also enjoy the improvised synth workout by the videographers themselves, recorded the same day when they got back from filming!

That last video is pretty powerful stuff actually. There’s a big separation between me and the place of my birth, and between 1985 and now. Luckily technology can allow our senses to reach across time and space and make connections – although I’m glad I can’t smell Bedford’s streets clogged with leaded-petrol cars and diesel buses. Or dodgy 80’s aftershave.

Promethean Chasms

*** Lots of spoilers, watch out. Last warning ***

Went to see Prometheus on Sunday at the UA on Shattuck in Berkeley. Chose to see it in 3D – we figured this film at least would be worth it, and it was – for visuals at least. 3D or not, it looked fantastic. I loved the shots of the ship contrasting against the planet – amazing sense of space and scale. Wonderful shot of space, with this tiny streak of light moving across it.

We came out of it disappointed, though.

Some thrown-out comments:

(Many of these have been discussed in other, more coherent reviews, such as this one, and this discussion of the whole Alien saga. This is my review. There are many like it, but this one is mine. (Wait a minute that was Kubrick wasn’t it? Blast.))

We understand that filmmaking and SFX have progressed since 1979, but if Prometheus is set before Alien, shouldn’t the technology be less flashy and slick? OK, this is a fancy Company vessel (with a comfy lifeboat for plot reasons), but it’s not a “ship of the line”. It’s a one-off exploratory ship, that cost a trillion to build – because it was a one-off? Cut back on the frills, perhaps. Less of the cathedral-sized rooms. OK, Nostromo is a mining vessel.

Actually, the lifeboat wasn’t for plot reasons, it was to support a single plot point. Boo.

What was the music doing? During bits that were supposed to be scary, there was this theme that sounded like it wanted to be uplifting.

Some reviews have said that wanted more “answers”. Early hype about an Alien prequel said that they may reveal how humans, the Space Jockeys/Engineers, and the xenomorphs are connected. To which I say, why do they need to be connected? Can’t they just all coexist in the infinite uncaring universe, and happen to bump into each other? I don’t like it when prequel-makers feel the need to explain every last frame of the original. (see also: the book Blade Runner 2, The Thing remake, Star Wars).

Why don’t the crew know what they’re doing? Why is Geologist (aka Ian Curtis from 24 Hour Party People) so antagonistic towards Biologist? They’re both scientists, they could at least talk about fossils. Forced characterisation. That Scottish lady was terrible, and she disappeared halfway through. I didn’t recognise half the crew.

I noticed the use of old Giger concept art for Alexandro Jodorowsky’s aborted movie of Dune in 1975. The Engineer Domes especially reminded me of Giger’s design for the Harkonnen stronghold. Many others noticed this too – check out this forum thread with lots of pictures.

You can build an interstellar spacecraft that looks like it’s very comfortable and spacious, you can build a conscious android, but you can’t provide other robots and probes. Even the new Bay Bridge span has remote maintenance drones, not to mention

The laser scanning probes were cool. My company uses that kind of thing already. Check out Leica’s range of scanners. They don’t fly, but give it a few years. Send the probes in first! Never mind Twatty Holloway wanting to open his presents.

Keep your helmet on, even if you think there’s air. You’re on an alien planet, in an artificial structure, with liquid dripping everywhere. Keep your helmet during further visits, when you know there is danger. Warn others to keep their helmets on after you know there’s danger.

If you are a powerful Company woman with a special lifeboat with a medical pod, make sure it’s configured to fix women, not just men. OK, it was for Guy Pearce, whose unconvincing prostheses needed touching up regularly.

If you’re the designer of medical pods, don’t deliberately design in the limitation that it can be configured to only fix one sex. Human males and females are exactly the same apart from couple of very small differences.

Why cast Guy Pearce and then cover him in bad “old man” makeup, if you’re never going to show him young? Or are we expected to watch every last bit of teaser trailer to get the most out of the movie itself? Or maybe there will be an extended made-up “Director’s Cut” with a young Guy Pearce, based on the myth that the director didn’t have total control over the movie in the first place.

We knew David was going to have an agenda, but it was revealed almost immediately, and he carried it out in plain sight. And yes, David liked Lawrence of Arabia, but how did it affect his behaviour? This was made a thing of in the previews, but I couldn’t see any objective evidence.

So Stills’ squeezebox got obliterated?

O'Bannon's octopus-like facehugger

The octopoid (quadropoid?) alien reminded me of the descriptions in some of the early treatments by Dan O’Bannon in 1978. They take an alien skull back to the ship then as well. Seems like they were making an effort to tie in with earlier work from Giger, O’Bannon and so on. Fan service?

(In that script I linked to above, the ship is called the “Snark” – nice reference. Also, the only survivor is a man (no heroic females), and the lifeboat looks a lot like the eponymous ship in Dark Star.

This was what got us confused the most – the aliens. Never mind the Engineers, who we never really knew were bad guys until they acted like it. No I’m talking about the bugs, worms, snakes and octopi. Which was which? Were they all the same? I’ve tried to lay out what we saw below. If you can tell me some links I’ve missed, please tell me.

Error generating Graphviz image:

Graphviz cannot generate graph
Command: /usr/bin/dot '-Kdot' '-Tpng' '-o/home/petty/www/www/wp-content/tfo-graphviz/123ee4b0a2c06430cc7088d9a4574fc4.png'
Error: : syntax error in line 5 near '-'

Original DOT:
    2 digraph
    3 Prometheus_Prologue {
    4 node [style="rounded,filled";shape=box;];
    5 "Engineer" -> "drinks stuff" -> "DNA breakdown" -> "DNA gets in the water";
    6 label="Prologue. Where was this? Engineer Homeworld? Earth? Scene of Movie?";
    7 }

Error generating Graphviz image:

Graphviz cannot generate graph
Command: /usr/bin/dot '-Kdot' '-Tpng' '-o/home/petty/www/www/wp-content/tfo-graphviz/6137a724ce6af0826aad09838bcf1cb6.png'
Error: : syntax error in line 6 near '-'

Original DOT:
    2 digraph
    3 Prometheus_Creatures {
    4 node [style="rounded,filled";shape=box;];
    6 "Nanos" -> "Nanos inside Canister" -> "Holloway" -> "Holloway Nearly Monster" -> "Holloway burns";
    7 "Nanos" -> "Nanos on wall" -> "Same as the others?";
    8 "Nanos" -> "Nanos on canister" -> "Nanos on Floor";
    9 "Holloway" -> "Shaw impregnated" -> "Baby Quadropus" -> "Big Quadropus" -> "Engineer impregnated" -> "Xenomorph precursor";
   10 "White Worm" -> "Biologist" -> "New White Worm?";
   11 "Nanos on Floor" -> "Geologist" -> "Geologist Monster" -> "Geologist Monster burns";
   12 "Segmented worms" -> "What?";
   14 label="Prometheus Creature(s) Lifecycle";
   15 labelfloat="true";
   17 }

(This graph was brought to you by GraphViz and the lovely TFO GraphViz plugin. It allows you to create charts in text like “A -> B”, which then shows up as a little digraph. Super nice.)

Overall, I’m glad I went to see it on the big screen, and in 3D. It gave me an excuse to watch Alien and Aliens again with my friends (we didn’t bother with 3 or 4). But it’s still a shame.

At least the new Total Recall is going to be AWESOME!

The Social Network Soundtrack

One of the best things about the movie The Social Network was the soundtrack by Atticus Ross and Trent “NIN” Reznor. It’s available here for only $5, and there’s a free five-track sampler available at the same link if you provide your email address. I’m downloading it now. What I heard on this site sounded really good, and that’s a great music and design site in general.

Update: I got the whole thing, and it’s really good. The main theme especially, Hand covers bruise, illustrates what I said about the growing rage and jealous resentment that the Zuckerberg character showed.

‘The Social Network’ – I Enjoyed It

We went to see The Social Network yesterday, and I recommend you go and see it as well. Not because it’s the greatest film ever, or because it gives a unique insight into what it was about, but because I enjoyed it and would like you to as well.

Jesse Eisenberg was excellent, aloof and purse-lipped one minute, verbally machine-gunning the next, glowering the rest of the time. His growing rage at not being included was reflected in Trent Reznor’s simmering “growing rage” theme, which was revisited at key points through the movie. The script and performance made you feel sorry for Zuckerberg even as you thought he was an asshole. He went from being dumped, to lashing out, to being infamous, then sought after, then successful, then famous, then sued, then finally alone, trying to “friend” the girl that dumped him.

Whether all that has anything to do with real life, based as it was on a book, based on a true story, who knows. The regular statement at the end of the credits (Cassie’s a credit-watcher and she’s taught me a lot about what to look out for) about “any similarity purely coincidental” was replaced with a much longer and more convoluted paragraph.

The key quote of the film for me was from Eisenberg, “If you’re the founders of Facebook then you would have founded Facebook”. His repeated defense that he didn’t use any of the code from the project he had been asked to work on was a little thin – code is one thing, ideas are another, although the idea the twins had was basically “Exclusive Friendster”.

I enjoyed the first “hacking” scene, showing MZ bashing away on his Linux box (was that KDE 2?) while the exclusive final clubs bussed in girls to frolic with. I was pleased to recognize and almost follow what he did to gather the photos needed to create the bitter kneejerk facemash.com.

We didn’t realise the part of the Winkelvoss twins was played by one actor – a testament to the digital trickery used to double him up. The trendy tilt-shift photography in Henley was a nice touch. I used to live in Marlow, just down the river from there, but I’m afraid my lifestyle was not that of the characters. I lived in a room that used to be a garage, off the back of a Post Office, with the lock facing the wrong way so I had to leave the key in the lock otherwise I was locked in my room.

As for Facebook in real life, I joined when it opened up to large US businesses, shortly before it opened up to anyone. I am wary about the privacy issues surrounding it. The Electronic Frontier Foundation in the US, and the Open Rights Group in the UK (same color scheme, similar work, vastly different size) have a lot to say about it, as do many tech rights bloggers. I’ve been able to contact many old friends and acquaintances through the site, but I wish I could take them by the virtual hand and show them the open web. I’ve been downscaling my presence on there, but I’m not yet ready to quit.

Come Sunday evening, I was washing up after a lovely dinner of fresh pesto pasta and cranberry juice, and I heard Cassie watching The IT Crowd, so I took a rest and watched, and it was the FriendFace episode, imagine that.

There were three of us at the Sundance Kabuki. My old theater pal Kristen is in town, and I’m happy to be back in contact after a gap of over two years, fuelled partly by an unnoticed Facebook friend drop glitch. When we rely on these tools too much, we can end up ignoring or excluding (deliberately or not) friends not on the network, and when we read too much into the way people apply the mechanisms these tool provide, the real social network can suffer.

Wonderfully Mellow: WonderCon 2010

I seem to be following these things around. When I lived in San Diego, I was able to go to ComicCon twice, and now in San Francisco we have WonderCon, run by the same people, but a bit smaller and mellower, as it turns out.

Of course, my buddy Brian, being a makeup artist and therefore an “industry person”, gets free passes for himself and an entourage, so all I have to do is lay out the lilo and have guests for the weekend. Brian, Stacey and their Golden Retriever Camden arrived Friday afternoon, and we had a pleasant weekend of geekery. (They were supposed to come up on Thursday, but Brian had a short-notice job applying makeup to Ernest Borgnine and Mickey Rooney).

WonderCon is much smaller that ComicCon, much less crowded, and the big names like DC and Marvel don’t have huge staged kiosks. In a way that made it better, because it allowed the smaller publishers and artists to stand out more. We did our usual wandering and browsing, Brian adding to the Kinney Hoard Museum of Action Figures, and then picked out some panels and talks to go to. Again, because of the smaller scale, it seemed easier to get to more of these interesting events. Of course, some of the panels were huge draws, such as the Arkham Asylum Forensic Psychology panel (“Is The Joker psychotic or psychopathic? How does that affect the law? Should he be in prison or the asylum?”). The huge line running round and round the corridors put me off that. There was also a big buzz about Dr Who, so any mention of that brought the fans running. We chose smaller stuff.

Creator’s Rights was a useful panel about how artists and authors should approach publishing, with horror stories of unscrupulous publishers ripping artists off. The upshot seemed to be to get someone (anyone, if not a lawyer) to read any paperwork and keep your trademarks. One panelist said to just post your work to a blog, and then use a Print On Demand service like Lulu.com to publish physical books yourself – your rights would be protected. What does a publisher bring to the table anyway? Brian was interested in this because he has a story that he wants to publish as a comic book (as part of a wider continuum of “product”) with an artist friend of his. I think they just need a kind of pre-nup.

Wandering around, I saw a short line leading up to Max Brooks, who was signing copies of his comic book Recorded Attacks, as well as anything else you wanted. I love his zombie books, so I took the opportunity to buy a copy and get it signed, and he was very friendly and charming, making a note in the book that the UK was my home – there was a recorded zombie attack in the North of England in Roman Times. That’s what Hadrian’s Wall was for. When I told Cassie of my nice encounter with the nice man, she asked if I had “asked him to sign my balls”. Such a classy lady.

I was interested in the Special Effects Makeup Demo, if only because I wanted to see what Brian would say about the guy’s technique. It seemed pretty good – he got a volunteer (with a revealing neckline) to have a nasty neck wound attached. While he did the application, makeup, and final oozing blood, he talked about techniques, materials and took the opportunity to play a trailer of some crappy zombie cowboy movie he did the effects for. I’m all for the little guy doing it for cheap, but jeez.

Following straight on from that was a demo of body casting, with one volunteer having her arm done in plaster, another having half his face (and beard) done in alginate, and a third having his palm done with silicon rubber. The presenter, in his bowler hat, (necessary) eye patch and leather apron, looked very much the quirky Con-attendee. He used a pocket watch to time his talk, which was pretty cool, and answered questions about materials, costs, tricks and techniques.

Saturday evening we had pub grub and pints at The Irish Bank, which I’d not visited before. It was originally called The Bank Of Ireland, but had to change its name after a complaint from the financial institution thousands of miles away. Fools.

The next day, after some freshly baked croissants, we hit the Con again. First up was Spotlight On Max Brooks, with my mate Max talking to a big room full of fans. Sitting behind the usual long front table, he said he didn’t like being alone, so he asked members of the audience to join him. He then aimed most of his talk, which covered his career, the status of the movie of World War Z (script due “in a month or so”), the GI Joe comic and so on, at a 10-year-old boy in the audience, which was really cute. Brian asked a good question about why the audiobook was abridged: because you have to pay all the different performers. It’s the same reason the movie will have to be big – it’s a global epic, with many settings, characters, and individual stories. He was really funny, frank, and informative – definitely his parent’s son. And just about a fortnight older than me!

The presentation by the Bay Area R2-D2 Builders Club was fascinating. They have all built, or are building, are are continually improving, full-sized functional radio-controlled models of the Star Wars R2-D2 droid (or variations thereof). The examples on display were astonishingly detailed, this one even including the hologram projection feature. The talk gave some tips about materials, costs (a lot), time costs (a lot), and impact on family life (a lot). I wish I had that kind of dedication, passion, skill, money, time and a workshop. If I made myself a droid (which I won’t, especially after the stress of the zombie collars last year), it would be one of these, only in Rebel orange and white. Perhaps a Death Star maintenance droid would be more possible – a radio-controlled car with a box on top. Lick of paint.

As a final treat we went to a very interesting panel on Local TV Horror Hosting, with discussions of history, method, anecdotes about the crazy people involved, and so on. They showed a short video about a few of the local heroes of the scene, including The Ghoul, Vampira, and Bob Wilkins. I had a flash of remembrance when seeing Zacherley – I thought he had been the model for one of the Horror Trumps cards I had when I was a kid. But when I checked I remembered the model was actually Lon Chaney (father of Wolfman Jr) in Tod Browning‘s London After Midnight, with his top hat and teeth. The idea was very popular up until cable TV and VCRs became so big – local stations would show mostly-rubbish old movies, topped and tailed with these hosts making terrible puns on creaking sets. For most people, this was the only chance to see these movies – they weren’t in theaters any more, and VCRs weren’t around yet. Their styles were very different – Vampira of course was the wasp-waisted scream queen, The Ghoul was wacky and over-the-top, with tonnes of props and fireworks, and Bob Wilkins (my favourite from the short clips we saw) was very understated, sitting in his rocking chair and making dry, disparaging comments about the films he was showing. Local cable stations still have similar hosts, but they are no longer so popular. But podcasts give them the chance to go back to their radio roots, and YouTube and Vimeo can open up audiences. Nice history, hopeful future.

Bit of a rant. There is a lot of genre-spanning in the geek world (“I span all genres, they call me the genre spanner” “Well, they call you the spanner”). You can’t mention Joss Whedon without a certain amount of squealing about musical episodes, puppet episodes and so on. The recent hit book Pride and Prejudice and Zombies has given rise to a sequel by the same author, Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters, and plenty of copycats. A new movie about Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is coming soon. Adding “zombie” to any profession or character opens up Halloween costume possibilities in the way that “sexy” still does. I think it’s all a bit fan-servicey and predictable. Within a year, we’ll have Puppet Zombie Benjamin Netanyahu: Vampire Hunter, The Musical: On Ice! (Holiday Special). And then where will we be? I’ll tell you – I don’t know, but this kind of pandering recycling does seem rather lazy.

Anyway, this Con was a lot of fun, and far less stressful than ComicCon last year, probably because I didn’t have to dress up as a domesticated zombie this time.

Possible Use For iPad?

I’m not getting one, but I have to say these iPads are pretty intriguing, and I’d love to play around on one. Wil Wheaton has found a possible case of buying one after initial scepticism – board games. Complex board games like Car Wars and Arkham Horror. And reading that post, and the comments, made me think of the movie Big, with Elizabeth Perkins and Tom Hanks. Towards the end of the movie, Hanks’ and Perkins’ characters make a presentation about an “electronic comic book”:

You see it won’t be like these where you just follow the story along. You would actually make a whole different story appear just by pressing these buttons.

An electronic comic book? That’s amazing!

Yeah. An electric comic book. It’s gonna be different every time.

This is incredible. You’re brilliant–you know that?

If you like one you could see it, you know, over and over and over  again.

You’re wonderful.

You really like it?…You think Mac will like it? You know, what we could do…We could do like sports comics… or like if you’re going to steal second or something like that…You’d have sports books… baseball, football…really, it works with almost any sport there is. Hockey!

Later on they give a presentation which goes into more detail, including interchangable “disks” with new stories on them.

There’s this flat screen inside with pictures on it and you read it. And when you get down to the bottom you have to make a choice of what the character’s going to do… Like if he going to go in and fight the dragon then you have to push one of the buttons.

See, there’s a computer chip inside which stores the choices, so when
you reach the end of the page, you decide where the story goes. That’s
the point.

Terrific Susan.

A kid makes his own decision.

This is really possible?

Yeah. In fact, it’s a very simple program. Isn’t that right?

So what happens when you run out of choices?

Well, that’s the great thing. You can just sell different adventures. Just pop in a new disk and you get a whole new set of options.

We could market this on a comic book rack.

How much would the unit cost?

Well, our initial figure is around… around $7.00, with a retail cost of around $18.95.

You expect a kid to pay $19.00 for a comic book?

Only the first time, you racketball-playing dick, Paul. The disks would be a lot cheaper, and you could have serial stories, new heroes, the possibilities are literally (OK not really) endless!

Talking of Big, Cassie and I like the bit when he calls his Mom, pretending to be his own kidnapper, to say he’s safe and will be coming home soon. She forces the “kidnapper” to sing the song “I used to sing to him when he was a little boy” to prove he’s safe.

Oh, I got it! I got it! “Memories, like the corner of my mind. Misty water color memories, of the way we werrrrrrrrrre. Scattered  pic-tures…”

The Choose Your Own Adventure books from Bantam weren’t a big success in the UK, but Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone’s Fighting Fantasy books certainly were, from the classic (and infuriating) Warlock of Firetop Mountain to the stranger Sword of the Samurai and more complex Starship Traveller. I had a few of these, and they were well-thumbed and covered in rubbed-out pencil marks. I also had a few of Joe Dever’s Lone Wolf books, which had a much more (IMHO) immersive story and better (and more creepy) artwork. These were similarly thumbed and marked, so in the end I got my Dad to photocopy the score page, so I could keep the pages free of scribbles.

Searching around, I find that the series is now freely available to download, or even play online, complete with links between pages, and all the beautiful artwork. You can also view an SVG flowchart of the pages! The HTML version looks like an ideal candidate for iPad play – but you still have to maintain your own scores and inventory, which would be a pain. Easy to implement though, I guess.

It looks like there would be a range of complexity for electronic comic books, from a simple text document with built-in choices, to added features like hit points and skill levels, item inventories and magic spells. It would be a blurred line between that and the old text adventures like Zork, The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, and, er, Ship of Doom. But rather than having to type in directions, like simple VERB NOUN stuff, or the more flexible Level 9 parser as used in my old favorite The Saga of Erik The Viking, it would be preferable to use on screen buttons. But the text parsers could allow a huge variety of commands, whereas a button interface would be limited. You could just display the set of commands possible at a particular moment, but that would make the game a case of just trying all the available possibilities, instead of thinking around a problem. I suppose it depends on how good the on-screen keyboard is.

Of course, it goes without saying that a Linux-based tablet would be more open, flexible and probably cheaper, and would allow all sorts of experimentation along these lines without being forced through the Checkpoint Charlie of Apple’s walled garden. But then I would say that, wouldn’t I?

This should be interesting.

Like It Matters Here Is My Review Of ‘Watchmen’

So I went to see Watchmen in San Diego with Cassie and house-guest Martin. Of course, I’d been looking forward to it greatly, being a fan of the book and of Alan Moore’s other work. I’m not some huge Moore scholar, but I loved Watchmen and V for Vendetta, and I’ve read some issues of Top Ten (another “what if” story concerning superheroes) and Swamp Thing, and in general I think Moore is a true artist.

I loved his novel The Voice of the Fire, set as it was in a 10-mile radius around Northampton over 5000 years of personal and community history, with each story feeding a myth or legend to the next. I come from Bedford in the UK, not all that far from Northampton, which has its own long history. It makes me wonder what dark secrets hung over the Castle Mound, or the site of the old Ford that gives the town it’s name. No worse than the dark realities of the High Street on a Saturday night, I bet.

I’m well aware of Moore’s feelings about film adaptations of his work, and for the most part they are well and truly justified. But this one felt different. Artist Dave Gibbons was on board, and the shots of sets and costume sketches that dribbled out from the production all looked very hopeful.

Friend Brian, he that built these teeth for me for Halloween, had met Dave Gibbons when he was doing the special effects for the fantastic documentary The Mindscape of Alan Moore (video clip here), and when we went to San Diego Comic Con last year he got him to sign his copy of Gibbon’s own book The Originals, a retro-futurist retelling of Quadrophenia, complete with hover-scooters (for the faces) and hover-bikes (for the “dirt”), high-collar riding coats known as “mantles”, and of course, hard pork-pie hats. There was lots of props, toys, early trailers and so on to see at Comic Con, and hype was at its height. So I had high hopes for this production.

I was a little disappointed. I’m not worried about the retelling being “faithful”. It definitely was. I don’t want to be that guy, complaining about every tiny difference. The sets, costumes, effects, design, vehicles were all great.

I’m not too bothered about the change to the ending. The “squid” would have needed many more characters and scenes: the artist who designed it, the pirate writer who came up with the hellish visions it propagated in the people of New York, the massacre of the secret community in the bombing of the ship, and so on. It was easier to just stick with a “big bomb” SFX sequence and leave it at that. In fact, by making Dr Manhattan the threat instead of some “alien invasion”, you might say it was a neater and more plausible ending (if “plausible” can be a word you would use in this context).

The acting was variable. Malin Ackerman was a bit wooden, and Billy Crudup’s performance as Dr Manhattan suffered from the fact that he was trying to be otherworldly and inhuman, but instead it just came across as “talking in a lilting la-la voice”. Jackie Earle Haley was fantastic, and Patrick Wilson was excellent as well, both of them showing the necessary vulnerability.

I didn’t recall the book being so violent. Checking back, of course, I see that it was, and the film was pretty faithful to the number of punches and kicks thrown during the rape scene. Nasty. However, there were some extra nasty little bits that were added, in one case with reason, in others without. I wouldn’t mind, but it did seem to enjoy lingering on some bits.Lingering was the problem on the whole. Every line was an important, every frame was a freeze frame. In the effort to not miss any bits from the book, it seemed like they were trying to make sure that every line was highlighted and clearly signposted. Despite this, the actors weren’t always that good at making the line clear, so even I, that knew every line that was spoken and where it came from, sometimes had a hard time understanding what they were saying. Even the bits that were played for laughs (the ejaculatory flamethrower for example) got overshadowed by the films – dare I say it? – pompousness. The funniest bit was Rorschach’s initial responses, “Some nice flowers”, “A pretty butterfly”. That says quite a lot.

The fight scenes suffered from the current trend for slow-motion sequences. They wanted you to see every bullet, every punch, every breaking bone. I think that these superhero sequences would be more impressive if they were done in real-time. These people are supposed to be superhuman, even if they don’t have superpowers, so a fight which lasts five seconds and leaves five bad guys on the out cold floor is more impressive than a painstakingly choreographed and elaborately filmed violent ballet. The new Batman films have it right. *Biff!* *Wham!* *Whoosh! – “What was that?”.

I think overall that my disappointment is that now the film is out, there’s nothing to look forward to. Except for the Tales of the Black Freighter DVD. And the director’s cut with the other 30 minutes they shot…

On The Cusp(id) of 2008-2009

~ Better two months late than never, that’s what I always (have to) say. This is one of those summary-style posts that simply serve to let the folks back home know what I’ve been up to. ~ 

As is now tradition, Cassie and I started the Xmas season with a nice meal at LA Prime, at the top of the Hotel Bonaventure in downtown LA. Steak, Vodka Gimlets (Dirty Martinis) and a bit of a view, along with the cool glass elevator ride, and the Logan’s Run lobby.

Most of Xmas Eve we spent driving up to San Francisco to stay with Cassie’s brother Don and his family, like last year. They have a beautiful house out in Orinda, and as they have the large (soon to be larger!) family, they’re the holiday destination.

The 24th is Cassie’s eldest nephew George’s birthday, and he was turning 5. He got the usual shower of gifts (kids these days eh, etc) and traditionally he had his choice of dinner, which this time was sushi. Actually he seemed more into the udon soup and tempura, which left more dragon rolls for us.

Xmas Day was as you’d expect. Pyjamas, paper, gifts, food, drink, toys, music. Cassie’s Mum (Mom) Joan did another fantastic job of feeding us. She’s great. Sugary rolls and strata for breakfast, then more deliciousness throughout the day. Coffee, however, was an issue.

Over the holiday period I was recruited as the new family engineer to try and get the built-in coffee machine to work. I managed it in the end, with lots of help from family friend Renee, printed instructions from the web, and frequent breaks to build up my patience with what turned out to be an astonishingly badly designed bit of kit. You have to open it with a key and remove half the fittings to clean it, and you have to clean it every time you make a milk-based drink. The instructions were poorly written and omitted key information. You can imagine the manufacturers response, “Oh no, it can’t do that. Why would you assume it could?” If I could remember the manufacturer, I’d recommend you not buying.

On Boxing Day (which isn’t anything except “day after Xmas” here) we drove into the city and went to the All You Knead Cafe again, where we met up with Taylor, Aaron and of course Chandra, aka burlesque artiste Ruby White. After a good lunch there in the bohemian surroundings, we wandered up and down Haight Street doing some shopping. Cassie wanted a new Jerry (Garcia) Bear plush toy for Gordon, and I was needing some clothes because I’d managed to leave a load of stuff hanging in Cassie’s closet in LA. There are loads of second-hand and vintage shops along there, with some pretty good stuff, including an original Thompson Twins t-shirt, which I would have bought if it wasn’t for the fact that it was 5 sizes too small, $30 and threadbare. An amusing and incongruous meeting: while browsing in the headshop where Cassie bought the bear, we ran into my San Diego office manager and his wife, who were just browsing as well, honest. No wonder he seems so relaxed at work.

Don and family were off for an Xmas vacation on the 27th, so they left us in charge, with a short list of things to do, mainly involving Hollywood the hugely fluffy white cat, and Nora the pug, aka The Walking Meatloaf. We had to drop Nora off at the kennels, so we headed out to Clayton to Camp Four Paws, which looked like loads of fun for dogs, with large field scattered with toys and exercise equipment. On the way back, we stopped at a farm shop for something, and ended up being shown the shop’s collection of exotic birds, all chattering and squawking away in the barn. Strange little place.

In the evening we looked for somewhere nice for dinner, eventually settling on the Wood Tavern in Oakland. This had been recommended by Don and Darien, and we weren’t disappointed. They were very friendly, the food was great, the refilled cocktails were delicious, and the fact they (accidentally?) forgot to charge us for our entrees was very nice. We left a huge tip, and left quickly.

Saturday saw us back in the city at Chandra’s, for a little gathering to talk, listen to music, and experiment with a bottle of Pisco. It was also my first experience of a Sloppy Joe sandwich, which was very yummy. We started out trying to make proper Pisco Sours, but as these things often do, it deteriorated into random drink mixing. Singing about the Pisco Disco to the tune of Copacabana – “the hottest place in San Francisco” – are you proud, Petty? Really?

Back in LA on New Year’s Eve, I noticed a pain in my jaw, which grew into a huge throbbing and a swelling. I called my dentist (also on his holidays) and he phoned through some penicillin to a local pharmacist. Cassie also had a stinking cold, and she was popping the pills too. So it was that I saw 2009 in with drugs coursing through my veins, avoiding too much alcohol. Brought back memories, it did! (Not really.) It was really nice though, if quiet. Friends, decorated sheet cake, champagne, toasts, midnight kisses. Had I not been in pain and dosed up I would have been up for much more.

On New Years Day we were both fine as far as drink effects go, but we were both still feeling rotten with swollen faces and runny noses. So we ended up watching Arthur while drinking Perrier and eating leftover crudites with onion dip. Not the start of a diet, I hasten to add, we just didn’t feel like anything more. Just to add to the health kick, the next day we walked round Silver Lake reservoir with Gordon the dog, who loved getting a good trot in.

Then just before I had to return to San Diego, we had dinner at Brian and Stacy’s, where we stuffed ourselves after taking an axe to the Xmas tree and burning it in their garden fire grate. Those dry resiny needles went up like rocket fuel. One cute little treat we’d picked up at Gelsen’s was chocolate dipped fortune cookies, which had the usual mix of cold-reading nonsense (“things will change in the year ahead”) and the wrong lottery numbers, made palatable by a coating of chocolate. Talk about sugar-coating the bad news.

The cookie was right though. 2009 is going to be a biggie.

Finally I Can Confess

There have been some nasty attacks in Silver Lake, with men walking alone being grabbed, robbed (sometimes) and injured (often). For a while it seemed nothing was being done, then the LAPD announced they had arrested two boys aged 15 and 16, who were gang members. Scary stuff. This prompted me to think about the crimes I have committed in my time. I am reformed now, but there was a time… (wavy screen effect, as we go back, way back, back into time)

I used to work at Woolworths in my home town of Bedford, from 1989 to 1993(ish), on Saturdays, during holidays, when I was back from college and so on. I worked in the Record Department (called the “Record Bar” because of it’s awkward queuing principle: “Who’s next please?”), behind the till, up in the storeroom, and out on the shop floor restocking shelves. Woolworths has now gone out of business, ending a long history of High Street ubiquity. I have many memories of working there, too many to go into detail over, but here are a few.

  • Before Xmas 1989, everybody that bought anything at the record bar also bought a copy of the Phil Collins CD, …But Seriously.
  • Before Xmas 1990, everybody that bought anything at the record bar also bought a VHS copy of Pretty Woman.
  • Every Xmas, everybody that bought anything at the record bar bought a 5-pack of 180-minute Memorex VHS tapes.
  • Every January, everyone that had bought Memorex videotapes brought them back for a refund, because they were shit.
  • Some bright spark at head office thought the crap Eurodance tune by U96, Das Boot, was going to be as big a hit in the UK as it was in Germany. It totally wasn’t, and for weeks we had boxes and boxes of this CD single piled up in the stockroom. Even dropping the price to 49p and dumping them in the bargain didn’t shift them.
  • Some bright spark at head office designated Akira as a kid’s film, “because it was a cartoon” despite it having an 18 rating. Therefore, because head office said so, we had to put it next to the Disney and Thomas The Tank Engine.
  • We had Easter Eggs in the stockroom in January. “Oo, it gets earlier every year, dunnit?”. Shut up.
  • People smoked in the lunchroom. Seems weird now.
  • A customer brought me an open penknife that she had found on a shelf, and told me it was dangerous for staff to leave their boxcutters lying around. I agreed, apologised, and kept the penknife. Nice wood handle, folding 2″ blade.
  • A couple of weeks later, the manager (who was getting on a bit IMHO) saw me using said penknife and said, “Where did you find that? I lost it a couple of weeks ago, after I had been opening boxes with it.”
  • To begin with, I used to sweep the floors at the end of the day. One day I was on the shop floor sweeping when the lights went out. The manager had turned them off, thinking the place was empty. I called out that I was still there, but he’d gone. Eventually the alarms went off and the police turned up to find me standing waving in the window. The manager, who had to be called in from home to open the doors, blamed me. Senile old fool.
  • I think there was quite a lot of naughtiness and thievery that went on, because the Manager (not the senile one – his replacement, an altogether sharper cookie) instigated a random bag search when we were leaving the store to go home.

Now that the company is gone, I can reveal a filthy secret that has haunted down through the decades. One day, I was working in the stockroom, unpacking a case of TDK blank cassettes. I used to buy a lot of these, because we used to swap copies all the time, and I would buy vinyl to play at home and then tape it to play in my walkman. It’s called format-shifting, try it sometime. I was short of cash. I needed some tapes. I was alone in the stockroom. The slippery slope beckoned.

I unwrapped a 3-pack of TDK D90’s, with a street value of £1.99 (I think) and put the cellophane in my pocket. Then I removed the cellophane from each of the tapes. I opened each tape case, removed the little sheet of labels, and wrote appropriate band and album names on them, which I then stuck to the tapes. “808 State – Ninety“, “Pop Will Eat Itself – This Is The Day, This Is The Hour, This Is This!“, “Jesus Jones – Liquidizer“ and so on. I wound the tapes forward a bit so that it would look like they had been played. I scuffed the cases on the floor so they wouldn’t look too pristine. I went to the locker room and put the tapes in my bag, and kept all the wrapping in my pocket. I then went around the store for the rest of the day, putting bits of cellophane and label backing sheet into the various bins around the place, behind tills, in the stockroom, in the breakroom.

At the end of the day, as we all trooped down from the locker room to the back exit, I was nervous about the highly valuable contraband I was carrying in my duffel bag. It felt like I was carrying the Old Man Of The Sea, but he was made out of burning hot radioactive lead. The manager was standing by the door, the keys in his hand, ready to lock the door behind us all. Would he do a bag check? As I approached him, I said goodnight, then I walked out into the Saturday dusk.

I got about 5 steps, then he called out, “Matthew!”.

I froze, and turned around. Should I run? Brazen it out? What did he want? Why me?

“Good work today, Matthew, thank you.”

I smiled, turned, and went to my bike, chained to the railings across the square. I tried not to fumble the keys as I hurried to unlock it, and escape. I was free. Or so I thought. The guilt would make sure I would never be free.

(The last four pararaphs are not true.)

I guess in some small way I contributed to to the collapse of the company. For this, I apologise. But I won’t apologise for the fact that I can breathe free at last.