Why did I watch The Queen?

I'm not sure which seems more improbable -- that Brits still tolerate and pay for the Royals, or that a cast and crew of probably hundreds worked together to dramatize a conflict between Tony Blair and Queen Elizabeth over what her PR strategy should be regarding the death of Diana. And people paid to watch this as if it were dramatic! It made money!

I had already noticed a trend in the late 80s of fewer cop movies and tv shows, moving the drama into the sphere of lawyers and courtrooms. L.A. Law was great, and I can watch any iteration of Law & Order all day or night. But still, it seemed like they were moving away from the action of cops, to lawyers and witnesses describing action that happened off screen. Now we've moved further away from action to the drama of people debating over their public relations strategies. Not that there's much action to be found in the lives of Elizabeth or Albert or Charles or Camilla, but is this segment of their stories worth focusing on?

Helen Mirren in a deleted scene from The Queen.Screenwriter Peter Morgan has made a career dramatizing angles and moments you'd be hard pressed to give a shit about. Behind-the-scenes battle over public relations strategy in The Queen. A TV interview in Frost/Nixon. The drama of coaching a soccer team and all the public relations maneuvering involved in The Damned United. At least I can take heart that one of his more recent movies, The Special Relationship, was made for tv. Are the major studios recognizing that these are not worth making features about?

Here's my pitch for Morgan's next smash hit. Just give me a story credit and you can run with it...

Two towering figures of global importance. Christopher Hitchens. Charlie Rose. What better way to show the dramatic depth of their lives than to explore the narrative of Charlie Rose's associate producer discussing with Hitchens's agent whether their next interview will touch on the topic of Natalie Holloway's disappearance in Aruba. Or would that be too brutal and raw and close to the nerve? Perhaps we should pull back another level, further behind the scenes, and just show the children of Hitchens's agent that morning, arguing whether to have porridge, shredded wheat, or bangers & mash for brekki. (From their choice, we infer how the rest will play out.)

Working title: The Damned Weetabix


Deck the Halls is the new Fitzcarraldo

Deck the Halls is a wacky Christmas movie that aims for and falls short of the comedic heights of a Roadrunner cartoon. Danny DeVito and his wife are neighbors from Hell, loudly moving into their home late at night. Matthew Broderick first meets him as new neighbor DeVito is reaching to steal the newspaper from his front step. By the time he walks away, DeVito has his newspaper and mug of coffee.

DeVito decides to leave his mark on the world by making a Christmas light display on and around his house, bright enough to be visible from space. The noise and nuisance upsets traditionalist Broderick's holiday season. Hijinks and hilarity are sure to follow, you'd think.

Compare with Fitzcarraldo, about a man who wants to leave his mark by building an opera house in a small town in Peru. In order to do that, he has to haul equipment and building materials by steamer through miles of jungle, past unfriendly tribes. He employs natives to physically lift the steam ship over a mountain with a system of ropes and pulleys. Werner Herzog wrote and directed this true-ish story about the obsessed Fitzcarraldo, putting himself and others in danger for fleeting, ephemeral rewards. The danger and ephemeral rewards describes both men, Herzog as well as his subject, because in order to film it, Herzog really employed natives to lift the 340-ton steamer intact over a mountain, without special effects, and directed the steamer to run through dangerous rapids that resulted in injuries to three of his film crew1. The real life Fitzcarrald was at least reasonable enough to disassemble the ship before transporting it over the mountain.

So if you accept the hype that it's a movie warning us about the dangerous obsessions of madmen, then Herzog is warning us about himself and others like him.

Now if you can stand to, watch the fifteen minutes or so of behind-the-scenes dvd extras on Deck the Halls. This guy spends ridiculous amounts of time and money and effort on stringing and synchronizing Christmas lights, to attract attention to himself. He loses his job and almost loses his wife to his obsession, as does his competitive neighbor. Then together they rediscover the True Meaning of Christmas, allegedly.

As with Fitzcarraldo, the amazing thing in Deck the Halls is the story behind the story, the obsessed people who created a story of obsession. It's impressive that they covered a house with 14,300 LED nodes to turn the roof and front of the house into a low-res video display. It's impressive that they kept energy usage for all that down to 7,150 watts of energy, "the equivalent of four average hair dryers"2. It's somewhat impressive that they created the illusion of Massachusetts winter in the middle of summer, although that's nothing new.

I'm always amazed by how much time and money goes into film building sets. In this case they built two largish houses. Presumably they didn't finish or dress out every room in both houses, and they could sell the houses after filming, but it still seems amazing to construct entire houses for less than two hours of silly film. I guess if you built two houses for two hours of real families living in them, you wouldn't gross $35 million domestic.

Here comes the ludicrous display of obsession for meager rewards: since Deck the Halls is all about outdoor lights, sixty percent of the film takes place at night. To gain more time filming the houses in darkness, they constructed a tent 300 feet long, 60 feet high, covering both houses and some of the surrounding snowy lawns. The kind of temporary structures used by the military for airplane hangars.

In order to make a funny movie about one man's obsession, creating an ostentatious display of Christmas lights that could be seen from space, the makers of this movie created that ostentatious display, plus they built two houses and covered it with a military-grade airplane hangar tent, so they could capture 93 minutes of Danny DeVito phoning it in.

If it all plays out like Fitzcarraldo, I can't wait for the multiple documentaries, biographies and autobiographies of John Whitesell and how he realized his mad dream of filming Deck the Halls. Woulda been a lot funnier with Klaus Kinski though.



Leo Kottke anti-earworm technique

Just using my blog as artificial memory to augment my own memory right now. I always mention this to people when they talk about getting songs stuck in their heads. Now I can point to a video where Kottke explains it. (Skip to 9 minutes, 10 seconds.)


Rick "Um" Perry jumps the gay shark of Obama's non-existent war on religion

Would it be appropriate to call some of the claims in this commercial factually inaccurate, or just exaggerated and out of touch?

1. "... But our kids can't openly celebrate Christmas..."
What kids in the US are prevented by the government from celebrating Christmas? Unless your definition of "openly" means pushing or exhibiting their religion in schools or in places funded by government dollars, this is clearly false or wildly exaggerated. You can pray and shout as much as you want in your home, in private places, in lots of settings that are not public schools or government places.

2. "... or pray in school." Ahhh. He has some confusion about what the Bill of Rights means when it says "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof..." If you feel like you can't freely exercise your religion without praying in school, then you can go to a private religious school so that the public doesn't have to pay to support your favorite religion. Because having prayer in public school would mean a kind of establishment of religion. Is it that hard to understand?

3. "As President, I'll end Obama's war against religion..." What has Obama done or endorsed that was different from the last 5 or 10 Presidents? He opened a White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships and participates in the National Day of Prayer, which seem to be removing some of the separation between church and state. I'm amazed by the ways some people characterize Obama as something more than a mild, compromising centrist. Are we talking about the same Obama? Do you mean Barack Hussein Obama I or one of the President's relatives making war on Christianity?

4. "... and I'll fight against liberal attacks on our religious heritage." I'm not sure what Perry would see as liberal attacks on Christian heritage, but I assume it's things like this blog post right here, just pushing back against overreach and encroachment of fundamentalists who hope to establish theocracy. Like the claim of "Obama's war against religion", there's no real substance to the idea unless you're way out of touch with reality.

It's amazing how Perry and some Christians can portray themselves as victims of discrimination. SRLY? Last time I checked, polls showed that atheists were more despised than gays, Muslims and African-Americans. How many people say in public they wouldn't let their daughter marry a Christian, or wouldn't vote for a Christian President?

And how much power do liberals have to "attack" Christians in the media? Ever try to drive through Mississippi or Alabama and find a radio station that isn't playing sermons or morality plays or gospel? Way more challenging game than "I spy with my little eye..." Compare that with the number or radio stations that specialize in a liberal agenda, keeping in mind that Air America went belly-up in 2010. It was a quaint novelty for a few years, and things went back to normal: dozens of Christian radio stations, dozens of stations broadcasting conservatives like Limbaugh and Hannity and O'Reilly, and corporate stations that tried to present unbiased news more or less. The only way you'd think a radio or tv station had a consistently liberal agenda would be if you are so conservative that you felt Bush was too much of a centrist.

I suppose if you have the kind of worldview that sees most media as liberal, as if corporate media can really be liberal, as if Bush's claims about WMDs in Iraq were reported unquestioningly by Judith Miller because the New York Times is the frontrunner of liberalism, then maybe it would make sense for (fundamentalist) Christians to fear the power and anger of liberals.

What Perry sees as a liberal "war against religion" and misattributes to Obama is really a holding action of citizens and even some non-fundamentalist Christians against theocracy.


Justin Bieber jumps steam shark in Santa's sleigh

Santa has gathered some scrap parts and constructed a steam-powered ski boat, a shoddy ramp and a wind-up robot shark. He's using more steam devices to keep the lake free of ice. And he's pulling Justin Bieber towards the ramp at breakneck speed.

In how many different directions does this video fail?

5. The sleepy-sounding corpse of Michael Jackson called on behalf of the Jackson Five. He wants his singing style back.
4. Get as many cogs and gears from a watch repair shop as you can. Glue and sew them to every costume and surface. Steampunk!
3. All those straps and chains and extraneous fashion accessories dangling from shirts, hats and pants, and nobody can invent a device to hold pants up? The crotch of Bieber's pants rests at his knees. You'd think a crafty, DIY group like this could measure an inseam better than that.
2. In typical movie-commercial fashion, the song is interspersed with irrelevant scenes from a CGI cartoon. Thus fans of Bieber feel like they're watching a commercial for a movie, and fans of the movie feel they're watching a commercial for Bieber (if they bother to stay for the end credits.)
1. Justin Bieber continues to sing and exist.


Knit and crochet projects

Apparently this is what I do with my time lately instead of writing stories or making mashup videos.