30 October 2009

The Gitmo Playlist

Remember when President George H.W. Bush authorized the ousting of Manuel Noriega and they blasted Van Halen's "Panama" (among other songs) to frustrate the dictatorial druglord into surrendering?  Ah, good times.  Well, you may also be aware that the C.I.A. likes to revisit the playbook from time to time and so they've apparently been using music as a weapon in their interrogations of prisoners of war held in Guantanamo Bay.  In response, nearly twenty recording artists/groups have signed a petition asking for the immediate end to this practice.  They want a list of all the songs played, and they want President Barack Obama to close the facility altogether, immediately.

Now, it's not surprising that so many recording artists would object to their music being used in this capacity; many of the petition's signers have built their careers and reputations as being socially-conscious liberals such as Rosanne Cash and Steve Earle.  Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine and Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails have learned that their bands's music has been included in the audible assault, and have cried foul.

Of course, the quickest way to find out whose music was played would be for the involved artists not to petition a release-of-information from the involved intelligence agencies, but rather to simply complain to the Recording Industry Association of America and insist on being paid royalties for those public performances of their music.  You might think I'm kidding, and maybe in part I am, but I think there's a kernel of merit to this idea.  The artists can then donate the recovered royalty fees to a charity of their choosing, or what have you.

The danger, I think, in this public pursuit of information is that there is already a morbid fascination with "The Gitmo Playlist."  Our society has increasingly become list-obsessed over the last decade or so, and when we know there's a list to be found, we insist on knowing its contents.  Rosanne Cash should know all about this, since her recently released album is, in fact, titled The List in reference to a list her famous father gave her of one hundred classic folk and country-western songs he felt essential for her to know.  Every interview she's given in promotion of the project has included a discussion of how eager other people are to know the rest of the songs named on the Man in Black's list.

Could we see an iTunes Essentials: Torture at Gitmo playlist emerge from all this?  Even if Apple did not compile the list themselves, there are bound to be iMixes published from any publicly identified songs.  We already know that Bruce Springsteen's "Born in the U.S.A." has been identified as having been part of the selection; how perverse would it be--and contrary to the intent of the involved recording artists--should fans flock to these songs now?

I don't mean to suggest that objecting to this use of their recordings should be dismissed; obviously, these are artists who feel as though their work has been hijacked and perverted in the context of torturing human beings and this bothers them.  To be honest, I find it rather easy to separate the issue of "Don't play this music to harangue prisoners" from the broader issue of the prisoners themselves.  And, personally, I like creative approaches to things so the idea of using music to make people uncomfortable doesn't, on paper, offend me in the least.

I would side with the recording artists in this matter, ultimately because I think there's something personal about crafting a work of art and I can easily see how troubling it would be for the originators of a song to find out it has been co-opted for something to which they object strongly.  It would help, I think, if there was any sense that anything other than humiliation has taken place in Guantanamo Bay in the last seven years.  We've yet to be informed of any meaningful confessions coaxed from anyone housed there; indeed, we're unclear just how many detainees were even enemy combatants in the first place to have anything to confess.  "Panama" earned some infamy for driving Noriega into custody, and so that use of music had a clear objective and result.  This, like the Guantanamo Bay detention program at large, seems to have been more of a meandering exercise in sadism.

28 October 2009

Julian Casablancas and the $90 Solo Debut Album

Don't know who Julian Casablancas is?  How about The Strokes?  Yeah?  Me, neither.  Oh, wait; they're the band on the T-shirt that Shia LaBouef wore in the first Transformers.  Anyway, the guy's releasing a solo debut album (Phrazes for the Young, and when you spell things with a "z" instead of an "s," you know it's cool) on 3 November.  Fans who are super-excited can wait until 18 December and shell out $89.95 for a box set edition.

Wait, what?  $90 for a box set of an album that will barely be a month old, from a guy whose name is unknown to most anyone who isn't already a fan of his band--which has, to date, released a whopping three studio albums?  Yes, and despite the fact I won't be acquiring it at all (it's just not my brand of music), I think it's a great deal.  Why is that?  I'll tell you.

First, there will be a standard CD version with a more common MSRP of $9.98.  Secondly, here's what you get for your $90:

  • A digital download of the album available beginning 3 November
  • The album on CD
  • The album on 180 gram vinyl
  • A second CD containing demo versions and B-sides
  • A DVD featuring solo acoustic performances by Casablancas
  • A 48-page book, autographed by Casablancas
  • A double-sided poster
  • A Cult Records pin

Now, I grant you that this is still a hefty sum of cash and perhaps the inclusion of the same material on three different media (digital download, CD, vinyl) is overkill.  And what isn't mentioned in any of this so far is the fact that the album itself is a mere eight songs (!).  Consider, though, that Amazon has the standard CD at its list price of $9.98 and the vinyl release with a sale price of $21.83 (down from its list price of $22. 98).  That's nearly a third of the cost of the box set.  Granted, once you have your standard CD, you can make your own digital download, but to have it before you have the box set you'd have to buy the standalone CD release, which would ultimately prove superfluous entirely.

So, is a CD of demo versions and B-sides, a DVD of solo acoustic performances, a signed 48-page book, a poster and a pin worth $60?  Not for me, but as I said, I'm not interested anyway.  For a fan, though, I think the answer--irrespective of that fan's financial status, which is likely not promising at the moment--is "yes."  Simply put, I can think of a handful of artists of whom I am enough of a fan that if they were to release a comparable box set, I would be very excited.

Consider that Garth Brooks's last box set, the Walmart-exclusive The Limited Series, carried a retail price of $25.  For that price, you got remastered CD's of Garth's last two full studio albums, one of three randomly included, new packages for 1998's Double Live, a 12-track release of The Lost Sessions (which was released a scant three months later as an expanded, 17-track standalone CD) and a DVD featuring not a concert performance, but an interview with Garth featuring a slideshow of photographs from his career playing against a soundtrack of his hits.  That's a lot of redundancy for $25.  In fact, most fans were better off just skipping the box set entirely and purchasing the aforementioned single CD release of The Lost Sessions, which was a greater supplement to their Garth library.

But, wait, aren't you saying that this other guy's eight-song solo debut is worth a $90 release, but Garth's 63-song box set wasn't worth $25?  Yes, I am and the reason is that the only new material to be found in Garth's box set was quickly released by itself...with more material.  Let's say, for the sake of argument, that Garth had instead packaged The Lost Sessions similarly to Casablancas's Phrazes for the Young.  That would have seen fans paying $90 for two CD's, including one of demo versions of songs from Garth's career (there really haven't been any B-sides, since he only released singles overseas, and they all but rarely contained album versions of songs); a DVD of Garth performing songs and a signed book, on top of the two media versions of The Lost Sessions (no digital Garth, as discussed in my last blog entry) and the poster and pin.  It would have been uncharacteristically expensive for a Garth Brooks release, absolutely, but I think it might also have been more rewarding than was The Limited Series.

Simply put, the value of a deluxe release is best evaluated by the fan/potential purchaser for himself.  All I'm suggesting is that, while Casablancas won't be getting any of my money, I would like to see this kind of release every now and again from someone in whom I am interested.  Would I buy every such release?  Of course not; even if I could afford to do so (which I can't), it would be hard to remain enthusiastic if every other month saw something like this hit the shelves.  But once a year or so?  Perhaps.

October Horror Movie Challenge

Among other online forums, one of the ones of which I've been a member for a while now is DVD Talk.  This is the fifth year that members have tried to squeeze in as many horror films as possible in the month of October.  Along the way, the challenge has evolved; initially, it was simply to try to hit 100 titles, but now there are a whole host of sub-challenges.  I enjoy participating, but there is one scheduling conflict: the baseball postseason.  Not being a fan of any other sport, I feel compelled to squeeze out every last inning of baseball before it goes into its winter slumber and I'm without the game until April.  Still, my wife and I have tried harder this year than in the past and as of this moment, our total film count is up to 22.  That's almost an average of one a night, which isn't bad given all the distractions and interruptions of our daily lives.

To give you an idea of how this goes, to entice you to join a delightful film-based online community and to get you to participate next year, this year's sub-challenges are:

100 Movies in 31 Days

31 Films Subset
After group discussion, a list of 31 films is compiled.  Each day of the month has one film assigned to it.  This year's dates and films:

10/1 Cube (1997)
10/2 Nightmare Castle (1965)
10/3 Poltergeist (1982)
10/4 The Manitou (1978)
10/5 High Tension (2003)
10/6 The Nanny (1965)
10/7 Vampyr (1932)
10/8 Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon (2006)
10/9 The Signal (2007)
10/10 Baby Blues (2008)
10/11 Cemetery Man (1994)
10/12 Death Bed: The Bed That Eats (1977)
10/13 Psycho II (1983)
10/14 Jack Ketchum's The Girl Next Door (2007)
10/15 Troll 2 (1990)
10/16 Alligator (1980)
10/17 Let the Right One In (2008)
10/18 Zombieland (2009)
10/19 Spider Baby, or The Maddest Story Ever Told (1968)
10/20 Dawn of the Dead (1974)
10/21 Dawn of the Dead (2004)
10/22 Ravenous (1999)
10/23 End of the Line (2007)
10/24 Prince of Darkness (1987)
10/25 Paranormal Activity (2007)*
10/26 An American Werewolf in London (1981)
10/27 Phantasm II (1988)
10/28 Final Destination (2000)
10/29 Shaun of the Dead (2004)
10/30 Trick 'r Treat (2008)
10/31 Halloween (1978)

*Paranormal Activity is, in fact, the same movie that has just recently had a national wide-release; it was made a few years ago and has been on the festival circuit.

Theme Nights
Perhaps you don't want to be pinned down to a specific film each night, but still want some guidance.  Well, here is a specific theme, and you get to make your own selection.

10/1 "You Put a Spell on Me!": Witches & Warlocks
10/2 Pick Your Favorite Director
10/3 "They're Here!": Supernatural/Haunted Houses
10/4 "Full Moon Mania!": Werewolves (Lycanthropes)
10/5 "Science Gone Horribly Wrong!": Sci-Fi Horror
10/6 Universal Monsters (can be any studio's interpretation)
10/7 "Shockumentary!": Horror Documentaries
10/8 Pick Your Favorite Horror Icon
10/9 "To the eXtReMe!": Splatter/Gore/Shock/"Torture Porn"
10/10 "Asian Buffet of Terrors!": J-Horror, Korean & Thai
10/11 "Quiet, You!": Silent Cinema
10/12 "Passport to Sheer Terror": European Horror
10/13 "Short Attention Span Theater": Anthology Horror
10/14 "Cuts Like a Knife": Slashers, Serial Killers & Giallos
10/15 "Godzilla! Godzilla!": Creature Features
10/16 "From Beyond the Grave!": Zombies
10/17 "Wanna Play?": Creepy Kids
10/18 "Lovecraftian": Cinema Inspired by H.P. Lovecraft
10/19 "Bollywood Frightfest!" Indian Cinema
10/20 "Cinema That Sucks!": Vampires
10/21 "My Brain Hurts!": Horror-Comedy & Campy Horror
10/22 "Inbred Hillbillies from Hell!": Backwoods Horror
10/23 "British Fright Cinema": Hammer, Amicus & Ealing
10/24 "Ouch!": Rape/Revenge
10/25 "I Cast You Out!": Possession/Satanic/Demonic
10/26 "Fog Machine Madness!": Gothic Horror (Italian & Beyond)
10/27 "Where's the Beef?": Cannibalism
10/28 "When Animals Attack!"
10/29 "Fava Beans & Chianti Mindfuck": Psychological Horror
10/30 "Timewarp!": Horror Musicals
10/31 "Smell My Feet!": Takes Place on Halloween

The Expanded Checklist/Bingo Card
A list of various themes to try to hit.  Films can be used for multiple categories, so for instance you could count Dracula as 1) a film from the 1930s, 2) starring Bela Lugosi, 3) is about vampires, 4) is based on a novel and whatever format you saw it on (DVD/TV broadcast/Blu Ray/theatrical screening/etc.) as another entry.  Then, rewatch it with a commentary track for another point!

Watch one film from every decade of film history.
--- 1890 - (insert film title here)
--- 1900 -
--- 1910 -
--- 1920 -
--- 1930 -
--- 1940 -
--- 1950 -
--- 1960 -
--- 1970 -
--- 1980 -
--- 1990 -
--- 2000 -

Watch a film for each rating:
--- Unrated (pre-MPAA) - (insert film title here)
--- G -
--- PG -
--- PG-13 -
--- R -
--- NC-17 -
--- X (not porn; 
several horror films were rated X) -
--- Unrated (post-MPAA) -

Watch films in at least three formats (DVD, BD, HD DVD, Laserdisc, TV, online, UMD, theater, iPod, etc).
--- First format, (insert format), (insert title).
--- Second format, (insert format), (insert title).
--- Third format, (insert format), (insert title).

Watch a film starring:
Bela Lugosi - (insert film title here)
Lon Chaney Sr. -
Boris Karloff -
Lon Chaney Jr. -
Vincent Price -
Peter Cushing -
Christopher Lee -
Robert Englund -
Bruce Campbell -
Jamie Lee Curtis -

Watch films in at least two languages other than English.
--- First language, (insert language), (insert title).
--- Second language, (insert language), (insert title).

Watch a film in each of the following subgenres/types:
--- Vampire - (insert film title here)
--- Frankenstein -
--- Werewolf -
--- Mummy -
--- Invisible Man -
--- Ghost/haunting -
--- Witchcraft/satanic/religious -
--- Zombie -
--- Slasher/psycho/homicidal maniac -
--- Monster/creature feature/Godzilla -
--- Documentary -
--- Musical -
--- Spoof/comedy -
--- Revenge -
--- Killer/evil doll -
--- Killer/evil animal -
--- Killer/evil child -
--- Giallo -
--- J horror -
--- MST3K/rifftrax/CT -
--- film and its remake -
--- based on a video game -
--- based on a novel -
--- directed by Herschell Gordon Lewis or Uwe Boll or Ulli Lommel -
--- won an Academy Award -- any category -
--- silent film -
--- Criterion version film -
--- with commentary -
--- film and at least two of its sequels -
--- anthology film -
--- takes place on a holiday -
--- takes place in space -
--- takes place on or under the sea -
--- animated film -
--- called "Night of ..." -
--- called "Return of ..." -
--- called "Revenge of ..." -
--- called "Attack of ..." -
--- with the words "Living Dead" in the title - 

22 October 2009

President Obama: Most Valuable Player?

Much has already been made of the Nobel committee's decision to award its Peace Prize to President Barack Obama.  You don't need my contribution to the discussion, but I did feel it a worthy subject for the purpose of my blog.  After all, I did name it from the motto of the French Revolution, and so I would be remiss to neglect something of this caliber.

The first question on everyone's mind has been, "What exactly has President Obama done to warrant his receipt of this prestigious award?"  Some feel that it is sort of an investment in his potential to promote peace.  I myself have grappled with this for a while now, until I decided to relate it to the greatest allegory of them all: baseball.

Think of the Nobel Peace Prize as the Most Valuable Player award.  Our international popularity has always been linked directly to that of our president; such is one of the by-products of our head of government also being our head of state.  I don't think I'm telling tales out of school to say that the international community wasn't particularly fond of us during the presidency of Mr. Obama's predecessor.  "Wait a minute," you say.  "The president shouldn't be worried about winning some kind of popularity contest!"

Well, isn't that exactly what a president does?  I mean, that's the very definition of an election: a contest decided by winning over more votes than the opponent.  And, once elected, a president must constantly rally his supporters both in Congress and among the citizenry to see the advancement of his agenda.  When a president fails to convince Congress that the people are with him, his proposals die.

Recall President Reagan bringing his tax reform effort onto live television, hoisting an insurmountably thick hard copy of the federal tax code to demonstrate how out of control the system had become.  He'd already won the election handily, on the promise of restoring our economy and prestige, and yet he still had to plead with the American people to besiege their representatives in the government to ensure that everyone stayed on-board with executing his vision.  So, yes, a president not only should be concerned about winning popularity contests, it's the very essence of his job.

So, now that we've accepted that a president must win popularity contests.  Back to our baseball allegory.  Helping to regain the popularity of our great nation amongst the international community wins Mr. Obama the Rookie of the Year award.  It's a helpful contribution to the team; it's worth recognizing.  But is it MVP material?

The criteria for winning the MVP award, per the ballot (as quoted on Wikipedia):

"There is no clear-cut definition of what Most Valuable means. It is up to the individual voter to decide who was the Most Valuable Player in each league to his team. The MVP need not come from a division winner or other playoff qualifier. The rules of the voting remain the same as they were written on the first ballot in 1931:
  1. Actual value of a player to his team, that is, strength of offense and defense.
  2. Number of games played.
  3. General character, disposition, loyalty and effort.
  4. Former winners are eligible.
  5. Members of the committee may vote for more than one member of a team.
You are also urged to give serious consideration to all your selections, from one to ten. A tenth-place vote can influence the outcome of an election. You must fill in all ten places on your ballot. Keep in mind that all players are eligible for MVP, and that includes pitchers and designated hitters. Only regular-season performances are to be taken into consideration."

Now, then, let's consider Mr. Obama's prospects for winning the MVP award.  Firstly, his actual value to his team is strong.  Despite the aforementioned favorable international view of the president, his domestic popularity level has fallen since his historic inauguration; but that was to be expected.  Just now, I ran a Google News search for "Obama" and here are the top related search terms that were automatically generated, in order:
  1. obama fox news
  2. obama new york
  3. obama small business
  4. obama birth certificate
  5. obama health care
  6. obama approval rating
  7. obama michael jackson
  8. obama poll
  9. obama iran
  10. obama ghana
For the uninformed, there has been a very public spat between the president and Fox News, vis-a-vis their editorial direction and whether they have passed off blatant anti-Obama opinions as "fair and balanced" news.  Yesterday, the president spoke at a Democratic National Committee fundraiser, hence the second item.  During the day, it was announced that, as part of the president's response to public frustration over the highly-paid executives who had pocketed federal bailout money for themselves, that the 2010 payout levels would be slashed by as much as 90 percent.  2009 may have been a year to exploit the chaos, but it's being made clear that President Obama intends to reign in what has been depicted as either an overt attempt at the socialization of industry or some kind of collusion between corporate thieves and their political puppets.  The stock market seems to be awakening from its slumber, and the bailout reign-in should be taken as a sign that, as Mr. Obama promised, things are looking up.

The birth certificate story has long been played-out, and I'm surprised that there are still enough people Googling it to put it in the top ten.  Health care reform has been Mr. Obama's domestic policy priority, bar none, and it is surprising that it should trail the irrelevancy of his birth certificate here in October 2009.  This has been a divisive, controversial issue contested hotly by all involved but there is one thing that cannot be denied: The President said he would tackle this out of the gate, and he has.  It hasn't gone smoothly, but then, he cautioned us that it wouldn't.

Of the remainder of the list, only the last two figure into an MVP discussion.  Then-Senator Obama declared in his 2008 campaign that he would be willing to return to diplomatic efforts with Iran.  To date, those efforts have consisted mostly of publicly traded jabs with the controversially (i.e., illegally) re-elected Iranian president Amadinejad, though a deal is apparently in the works in which Iran will begin exporting the uranium it only recently admitted to having developed.  Also, Mr. Obama has been presented with a bill that would bar companies that deal with Iran from receiving any government contracts.

Currently, many Africans are enduring the same kind of oppression against which the Iranian people railed in June: corrupt, brutal governments.  The president has been criticized for sitting on the sidelines during these conflicts, taking his relative silence to be a sign he is unconcerned by the plight of those in such circumstances.  During the aftermath of the Iranian election, the president noted that he had deliberately avoided making any remarks to avoid any suggestion of U.S. interference.

At what point should the president make a bold statement in defiance of a hostile regime, and when should he allow the internal affairs of another sovereign state to take their own course?  This is possibly the most challenging question posed to any of our chief executives and each has answered it differently.  Mr. Reagan struggled over how to handle the Middle East, certainly, but he was also tormented by how to handle the anti-communist thugs in Latin America with whom he was thrust into a tenuous alliance.  So, too, must Mr. Obama navigate these issues of international elections and human rights debates.

But, then, shouldn't the Nobel Peace Prize be a sign that he has, in fact, successfully finagled his way through at least some of those issues?  To date, he has kept mum throughout the re-election of Amadinejad and canceled a meeting with the Dalai Lama to avoid angering China.  That would seem to be the baseball equivalent of choosing not to play in the All-Star Game and then sitting out a key September game with the division title on the line.  In other words, hardly MVP behavior.

The number of games played, the Dalai Lama aside, has been great; if anything, the president has been criticized for being over-exposed in his television addresses and online presence.  He may not be setting the single-season home run record, but he's definitely a gamer.

"General character, disposition, loyalty and effort?"  Few of the president's opponents are railing against things that he hadn't already made clear he would seek to do as president, and his supporters are quick to point out that he has, in fact, turned out to be the rare politician who has seemingly worked very hard to make good on his campaign promises.  If there is one knock on Mr. Obama, it is that he is so deliberate and stoic at times that it is frustrating to not see him "in action" regularly.  President George W. Bush was clearly more like Star Trek's Captain Kirk-ish, and for fans who like to see their leaders mix it up, it can be frustrating to see a more Picard-ish Obama call a senior staff meeting to mull over his options.  (That's right, I just introduced a geek analogy into our baseball analogy of a political situation.)

To be perfectly honest, I think the fourth MVP criteria opens up the most interesting part of the entire debate, and that is that former winners are eligible.  President Bill Clinton has not won the Nobel Peace Prize, but he should certainly have been a candidate this year.  His Clinton Foundation has worked prolifically to address global issues through the cooperation between influential leaders and corporations, sidestepping the kinds of restraints that tie the hands of a government official.  And let's not forget his skillful negotiation for the release of two journalists arrested in North Korea.

I don't mean to rain on the President's parade, but while I would certainly give him the Rookie of the Year award, it is President Clinton to whom I feel the MVP award should have gone.

15 October 2009

Garth Brooks vs. iTunes

The following is taken from a response I posted to the macrumors.com forum.  In one of Garth Brooks's two (yes, two) press conferences, he insisted that iTunes is "killing" the music industry through its practice of selling songs individually, rather than exclusively as albums.

Well (and this is coming from a fan of Garth's), remember this is the same guy who tried to thwart used CD sales nearly 20 years ago. And, on paper, to an extent, he's right. When an entire album goes platinum, every session player and songwriter is entitled to royalties (the poor collection and distribution of which, is another debate). When fans cherry-pick specific songs, only those players and writers are entitled to royalties.

I side with the artists on one issue, at least. I have grown very tired hearing people look at a CD and declare that "There's only one or two good songs on here." What that really means is, "I've only heard one or two songs on here." Typically, this is because those people only hear what singles are pushed on radio or get exposure online. Many a time, I've bought an album and been disappointed by which album cuts were passed over as singles, and I know I'm not alone in this.

Now, here's the thing I would say to Garth about this. Firstly, as others have noted, digital sales can easily be restricted to entire album purchases. Secondly, while I appreciate his point about how useless radio and iPods would be with no music playing, I would ask him how relevant an artist's work is with no audience to appreciate it. See, it cuts both ways.

I could even understand it if Garth's only concern was piracy, but he seems not to get the value of music portability (carrying an iPod the size of a cassette is much easier than even an album of CD's), or the appeal of customizability. Mix tapes pre-date the digital world anyway, so it seems rather pointless to resist them at this point. Just the other night, I made a playlist in my iTunes library of Garth songs appropriate for an insomniac. And Garth? I bought all the CD's brand new--even double-dipping for both boxed sets. And if you want to get into the nitty gritty, how about including a 12-track version of The Lost Sessions in your second boxed set just three months before issuing a 17-track standalone version?

10 October 2009

2009 Reading Objectives: October Status

Back in February, I set some reading objectives for 2009.  You may recall the post to that effect, but if not here they are:

  • Edgar Rice Burroughs's Barsoom series - A friend lent me his old paperback of A Princess of Mars and I thoroughly enjoyed it.  Since Pixar is going to be adapting this in a couple of years, it seems prudent to read the source material now.
  • Joe Torre's The Yankee Years - I own and have read his first two books, and so I look forward to reading this one.
  • Books upon which movies I like are based - Sideways by Rex Pickett, Thank You for Smoking by Christopher Buckley and Dream Story by Arthur Schnitzler (Eyes Wide Shut was based on this) are at the top of the list, but there are many, many others.
  • Terry Moore's Strangers in Paradise comic series - I own the second volume, I Dream of You, and enjoyed it.  It'll be this year's Bone.
  • The Works of Alan Moore - It seems that if a film adaptation of Watchmen can finally come out, the least I can do is read the original comic.  And then, V for VendettaFrom Hell, the DC Universe Stories of Alan Moore collection and the remainder of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.  And if I ever read Lost Girls, you can bet I won't be admitting it in this blog.
  • P.G. Wodehouse's "Jeeves" stories - Introduced to me by B.J. Harrison in his outstanding Classic Tales Podcast series, these are absolutely delightful.  Apparently, there was also a British TV series based on these in the 1990s starring Hugh Laurie, and that's at the top of my Netflix rental queue.
  • Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories - Because it seems high time I read a standard like these.
  • Ian Fleming's The Man with the Golden Gun - It will be bittersweet indeed to read the penultimate Fleming-penned Bond book when I get to my annual allowance of this series.
  • More John le Carre novels.  I last read the masterpiece, The Spy Who Came In from the Cold, and am up to The Looking Glass War.
  • Art Spiegelman's Maus II: And Here My Troubles Began - I checked out the first volume from the library last year and was so engrossed by it I read it all in one night.
  • Elie Weisel's Night - because my new aunt lent it to me, thinking I would appreciate it.
  • Peter O'Toole's Loitering with Intent: The Apprentice - I found the first volume for a quarter at Half Price Books and would love to read the second half of this engaging, if dis-organized, autobiography.
  • At least something by David McCullough.  I mean, the guy is pretty much the American historian as far as mass market publications go, anyway.  It seems like my degree won't be final until I've at least read something by the guy.
So far, I've managed to knock off:

Gods of Mars, second in Edgar Rice Burroughs's "Barsoom" series
The Yankee Years by Joe Torre with Tom Verducci
Sideways by Rex Pickett
Thank You for Smoking by Christopher Buckley
Dream Story by Arthur Schnitzler
Strangers in Paradise: The Collected Edition by Terry Moore
Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons
The Looking Glass War by John le Carre
Maus: A Survivor's Tale II - And Here My Troubles Began by Art Spiegelman

Left to read:
At least something from P.G. Wodehouse's "Jeeves" series
At least something from Arthur Conan Doyle's "Sherlock Holmes" series
The Man with the Golden Gun by Ian Fleming
Night by Elie Weisel
Loitering with Intent: The Apprentice by Peter O'Toole
At least something by David McCullough

And, if possible, more of Strangers in Paradise and works by Alan Moore.  Not bad, really, since I've got nearly three months to go.

"My Word Is My Bond" by Roger Moore

My Word Is My Bond
Roger Moore
Date of Publication: 4 November 2008

Cover Price: $27.95
336 Pages
Oldham County Public Library

Sir Roger Moore, perhaps best known as one of the assorted James Bonds, turns in a rather self-deprecating account of his life.  Along the way from birth till publication, Moore tells of various hospitalizations, his professional growth from a clothing ad model to one of the most recognizable actors in the entire world, a handful of marriages and a spattering of colorful anecdotes of friends and colleagues along the way.  Fans of Moore's aren't terribly likely to learn a lot of revelatory insights, as most of this has been fairly common knowledge for some time.

To be honest, I was somewhat disappointed because many of the anecdotal passages were shared during his frequently off-topic audio commentary tracks for his seven Bond outings on their most recent DVD issue.  Of course, having already literally heard these tales in Moore's own voice made it even easier to hear him narrating whole passages at a time while reading the printed page.  In fact, the entire thing smacks of Moore's speaking voice and reads fairly effortlessly.  The only genuine complaint I would register concerns the plethora of run-on sentences; sometimes whole paragraphs have a singular period and a host of commas where others ought to have been.

The final chapters concern Moore's involvement with UNICEF, and the content breaks dramatically from the ego-clashes of movie stars that permeates the remainder of My Word Is My Bond.  Even already being familiar with the kinds of cruelties and hardships endured by countless children across the world, they never fail to rattle me each time I hear of them.  There are some genuinely disturbing things Moore shares with his readers, and this is in keeping with how he has approached his role with UNICEF.  People may not be excited to discuss the plight of children, but they are drawn to the celebrity of James Bond.  Moore has openly traded on his celebrity to draw much-deserved attention to the cause, and it comes as no surprise he would structure his memoir accordingly.

08 October 2009

VHS Rental Memories

This blog entry began as a response to a thread on the DVD Talk forum.  I got a bit carried away and when I finished, I decided that the whole thing would make for a worthy entry in my movies blog.  For people of my generation, I think that VHS rental was the way most of us saw the majority of movies.

DVD rental never really had the same effect, for a variety of reasons.  First, VHS weren't "priced to own" until the latter stages of the format; in the beginning, VHS tapes were priced at $100 and up, thusly discouraging consumers from owning films.  The thinking on the part of the studios was that if you owned a VHS, they wouldn't get any of your money anymore.  If you were going to make a permanent purchase, they wanted to get a big chunk of cash from you upfront to offset a lifetime of repeat rentals that they would then miss.  It wasn't until sometime in the early 1990s that consumers could count on $20-$30 release price points.

Secondly, of course, renting DVD's can be done through Netflix.  You have access to a much larger library than any brick & mortar store I've ever rented from, and you never even have to leave your house to make your selection, receive it, watch it or return it.  Despite the obvious superiority of this system, there's something to be said for the human interaction of actually going to a local community's video rental store.  You hear the discussions of favorite actors, movies that "looked good," and things that someone else recommended (sometimes followed by a critique of that mysterious third party's taste).  "Rob said Doc Hollywood was a good movie."  "Rob also said his Ford Pinto was a good car."

The first video rental place I can recall in our town was actually Radio Shack. They had a small library, kept on a double-sided shelf. My dad rented from them regularly, whereas my mom never really cared for movies. They divorced when my brother and I were little (hell, he wasn't even a year old), so we became acquainted with the rental process through him. Later, we got a Roadrunner Video that moved to, I think, three various locations over a little more than a decade. After I turned about 10, I quit going to my dad's on his weekends. Mom had opened a shop with my grandmother and they worked Saturdays. So, I got to rent tapes a lot of times and stay home on Saturdays and watch the movies.

Dad rented things that I know Mom would never have selected, or even approved of us seeing.  I recall Daddy's Dyin', Who's Got the Will?, My Life as a Dog, Glory and other movies with harsher language, more graphic violence and flagrant nudity than the more age-appropriate fare that she preferred we see.  I remember there was one movie he rented, and to this day I have no clue what it was, but during the opening credits a woman walked in on what was either her sister or friend having sex.  The guy was hoisting the woman into the air, and she was wearing black panties.  Maybe a garter belt and stockings.

I remember renting Dick Tracy, which I'd wanted to see all summer long in 1990 but never quite managed to get out to Louisville to a theater to see. (I finally got to see it on a big screen last year.) I rented all kinds of things: Dances with Wolves, Hot Shots!, This Is Garth Brooks! (which I later bought from Roadrunner when they removed it from the rental library), Mobsters (I still am not sure how I got away with renting an R film at that age), Doc Hollywood and various other early 90s flicks.

Sometime in the early to mid 90s, we got another local chain, Movie Warehouse, and for a while Kroger (regional grocer) operated a video rental department. Movie Warehouse's library was probably the largest, but they had a bad habit of keeping titles in their "new releases" much longer than was reasonable. For instance, I know for a fact that From Dusk Till Dawn was on that new arrival wall for well over a full calendar year. (New arrivals cost more/were rented for less time than catalog titles, so maybe it was a testament to the popularity of that particular film.)

Kroger was more of a hassle (and costlier), which is probably why their rental service didn't last long. I don't really recall renting videos from them particularly, though I do remember renting video games for the SNES from time to time. And I bought Groundhog Day as a used VHS from them. Strangely, I never saw the movie until I finally broke it out for the 10th anniversary of the theatrical release.

In 1995, we finally got a theater in town--the Oldham 8. By my junior year of high school, my friends and I would regularly catch the last matinee showing of something there, and then go walking around town. We'd wind up at Movie Warehouse, where we'd rent three movies ('cause that was their standard rental package at the time), and stay up all night with a themed trilogy. We'd do a Val Kilmer night, or a baseball night. One night we did a parody night that consisted of National Lampoon's Loaded Weapon 1, Canadian Bacon and The Silence of the Hams. By the time these trilogies wrapped up, the sun was usually coming up. The night we finally got around to renting From Dusk Till Dawn, we saved it for last. It was very surreal having the sun come up almost in sync with the film.

04 October 2009

Hackers, Steroids and Other Cheats

For the past few years, we baseball fans have been inundated with implications of players using performance-enhancing substances.  The most commonly expressed reaction is that cheating is inexcusable and that it stains the integrity of the game.  I happen to agree with that doctrine, but there's more to it.  Many players, we have been told, have resorted to using these controversial substances simply to keep up with the rest of the league.  And the typical response to those hypothetical players so far has generally been that their participation has been tantamount to capitulation.  Had the majority of players stayed honest, we say, the handful of abusers would have stayed in the minority.

Cut to about a month ago, when my wife and I were playing yet another round of races on Mario Kart Wii online.  All of a sudden, we're surrounded by other racers with seemingly unlimited power-ups; the ability to use items right off the starting line; players who drive off the track and reappear farther ahead of us as though they simply teleported; other such intimidating, game-changing enhancements.  These aren't even simply cheats; these are outright hacks.  For the non-inclined, the difference is something like this: a cheat is something the game designers tuck into the game for the very determined to find--and be rewarded for their efforts.  A hack is something that someone very determined does by breaking into the data of the game itself and manipulating things to their own advantage.

We encountered a pair of Canadian hackers who had infinite star power (making them invulnerable to any other attack) for whom even competing to win was no longer sufficient.  These two, instead, got their jollies by simply ambushing other drivers--repeatedly.  They simply set up at one part of the track and kept driving back and forth to run over other drivers.

Frustrated, we went online to see what other players were saying about this obnoxious trend.  It appears that, despite player protests, Nintendo had largely ignored such actions.  Their laissez-faire approach called to mind Major League Baseball's willful dismissal of complaints from players such as Rick Helling, who had bravely stood alone at annual meetings of the Major League Baseball Players' Association alarmed by the trend of steroid use tilting the balance of the playing field.

When players are not just bested by cheaters, but surrounded by them--and the authorities over their game refuse to act--what choices are left?  There are but three.  Firstly, a player can opt to leave the game.  But that seems the least fair option.  We paid our money to enjoy Mario Kart Wii and I don't think we should be run off by these cheaters out to flaunt their hacking abilities.  Professional ballplayers have far more at stake; they've invested the bulk of their young life to the game of baseball.  And that's not counting the at-times ridiculous sums of money they could earn by succeeding at it.  Besides which, the honest player resents the cheater's infiltration of the game he loves.  It seems wrong to abandon it to them.

So if you don't walk away from the game, then you are left with either continuing to be bested unfairly, or play unfairly yourself to stay competitive.  It's one thing to lose honestly; that's the nature of any competitive activity.  I'm no good at driving manually on Mario Kart, which costs me the ability to generate jolts of speed taking sharp turns.  If I happen to lose to someone who has mastered that skill, and the race is decided by their advantage resulting from it, then that's just the way it is.  However, to have someone generate destructive items at will--or, worse, to be repeatedly run off the track by someone who isn't even trying to actually win--that's something else.  There's only so much you can do, honestly, to remain competitive against an unfair playing field.

Would I hack the game to make myself similarly powerful?  No.  But the truth is, like Chris Rock once remarked about O.J. Simpson, "I understand" those who feel they had little recourse.  The most disappointing aspect remains that Nintendo and Major League Baseball each have the authority to have been more active in discouraging--and penalizing--such activity, and they instead threw the players to the wolves.

01 October 2009

iTunes - September 2009*

September's iTunes play counts aren't quite accurate since I lost a ton of my library to an external hard drive...failure? collapse?  I still don't know what actually happened, but the upshot is that with half the month already over, I had to restart (and rebuild) my iTunes library all over again.  What was played during this reclamation period is as follows:

  • Spa Moments Playlist ("Shimmering Light" by Mark Baldwin, "Reflections," "Inner Peace," "Stream," "Prayer of Serenity" and "Fresh Air" by David Huff) (4)
  • "Gymnopedia No. 1 - Orchestrated by Claude Debussy" - The Academy of St. Martin in the Fields (2)
  • "Galliard in G minor, P. 22, "Dowland's First Galliard" - Nigel North (2)

Played once apiece:

  • Worrisome Heart - Melody Gardot
  • Loose Boots EP - honeyhoney
  • Dead Flowers EP - Miranda Lambert
  • Just a Little Lovin' - Shelby Lynne
  • Eternal Baroque - Various Artists
  • "Spiderwebs" - No Doubt
To be honest, the interruption in my iTunes library didn't have a tremendous impact on the September play counts because we listened to B.J. Harrison's excellent unabridged audio production of Frankenstein or, The Modern Prometheus.  It ran throughout eight parts, each one roughly an hour in length.  The weather discouraged me from taking very many walks in September, and the couple of walks I did manage to get in, I played podcasts anyway.  Hopefully, October's playlist will be uninterrupted by data loss and we'll be alright.