Thursday, March 29, 2007


A Quiet Tide

posted by barsoomcore

In the midst of a long article about the Junos Denis McGrath says:

If I remember correctly (and I might not be getting this right; that's the nice thing about blogging vs. journalism, I can put that caveat right there and wait for the hive mind to correct me in comments)

Right there, folks. That's the world changing. Hear it?

Photo © Jenny Rollo


Tuesday, March 27, 2007


Art, Technology, and Being A Good Citizen

posted by barsoomcore

Penn Knows

Penn Teller is no dummie. This is from a 1994 issue of Wired Magazine:

"Technology adds nothing to art," he says. "Two thousand years ago, I could tell you a story, and at any point during the story I could stop, and ask, Now, do you want the hero to be kidnapped, or not?" But that would, of course, have ruined the story. Part of the experience of being entertained is sitting back and plugging into someone else's vision.

"The fact of the matter is, since the beginning of time, you could buy a Picasso and change the colors. That's trivial. But you don't because you're buying a piece of Picasso's fucking soul. That's the definition of art: "Art is one person's ego trip."

Penn says he and Teller "have been offered a huge amount of money and a huge amount of technology to do interactive shit. We have turned them down. Not that the technology wasn't up to snuff, but because we don't have any ideas."

"The whole fucking world is pretending the breakthrough is in technology," he says, as we whiz by the Blade Runner-like landscape of New Jersey oil refineries. "The bottleneck is really in art."

Exactly. Making stories "interactive" makes them less powerful stories. It is not at all clear to me that making stories interactive offers any benefits whatsoever. Penn's telling us this in 1994, and people are still today bleating about how wonderful "interactivity" is.

I understand why people enjoy games. There are games that I enjoy. And a Choose Your Own Adventure (which is a much of a story as a game can ever be) is a certain kind of game. But it's not art.

What elevates me, what enthralls me, is getting a piece of an artist's soul. Surrendering to another's ego trip, in the hopes that if they're skilled enough, and imaginative enough, and intelligent enough, they can sweep me up so thoroughly in their ego trip that I can forget myself and be shown the world from a point of view that isn't my own. "Interactivity" makes that HARDER. Not cooler.

Good Citizenship

Okay, let's move over to copyright, cause that always gets Corey riled up.

More wise words, these ones assembled by a writer named Jonathan Lethem. Jonathan has published his latest novel, and is embarking on a unique project to give away the film rights for free. He has a refreshing attitude towards how folks make use of his output:

If you make stuff, it is not yours to command its destiny in the world. God help you, you should be grateful if it has one. It's fantastic if anyone cares.

True dat. I find repugnant the prevailing notion that an artist has some sort of say over how their art gets used and interpreted and re-interpreted and chopped up and turned inside out. While I'm sure Sam Mendes had to get permission to use clips from Apocalypse Now and The Deer Hunter in his film, Jarhead, I think it's wrong that he did. Just like I think it's crazy wrong that you have to pay musicians in order to include their music in your film. How does that protect the artists' copyright? Crazy wrong.

So it's very cool and very interesting to see this experiment he's embarked upon. It has some similarities to the folks over at A Swarm of Angels, but is slightly less ambitious. Which might make it more likely to succeed.

He's also written an article on the subject, basically an extended riff on the glory of extended riffing called "The Ecstasy of Influence" (itself a riff on Harold Bloom's idea of "The Anxiety of Influence"). The article is long but greatly rewards reading. I'm going to touch on a few of the key points and offer my ecstatically influential comments.

Copyright is a “right” in no absolute sense; it is a government-granted monopoly on the use of creative results. So let's try calling it that—not a right but a monopoly on use, a “usemonopoly”—and then consider how the rapacious expansion of monopoly rights has always been counter to the public interest, no matter if it is Andrew Carnegie controlling the price of steel or Walt Disney managing the fate of his mouse. Whether the monopolizing beneficiary is a living artist or some artist's heirs or some corporation's shareholders, the loser is the community, including living artists who might make splendid use of a healthy public domain.

That's great -- consider Mickey Mouse a natural resource, and then consider how much sense Disney's monopoly on it makes. Our culture would be richer, both artistically and economically, if we cut down that monopoly.

He gets into the idea that art is based on the idea of a gift exchange, rather than a commodity exchange, and reflects on how important the notion of a gift exchange is to human society:

The cardinal difference between gift and commodity exchange is that a gift establishes a feeling-bond between two people, whereas the sale of a commodity leaves no necessary connection. I go into a hardware store, pay the man for a hacksaw blade, and walk out. I may never see him again. The disconnectedness is, in fact, a virtue of the commodity mode. We don't want to be bothered, and if the clerk always wants to chat about the family, I'll shop elsewhere. I just want a hacksaw blade. But a gift makes a connection. There are many examples, the candy or cigarette offered to a stranger who shares a seat on the plane, the few words that indicate goodwill between passengers on the late-night bus. These tokens establish the simplest bonds of social life, but the model they offer may be extended to the most complicated of unions—marriage, parenthood, mentorship. If a value is placed on these (often essentially unequal) exchanges, they degenerate into something else.

One of the simplest and most profound moral acts is to give without expectation of reward -- the very definition of a gift. Erin and Steph and I were talking Saturday about Buddhism and Erin was explaining Mahayana thinking (maybe -- there was wine involved so my memories are not to be trusted): there's a vow one takes to NOT enter Nirvana until ALL sentient beings have entered Nirvana. One takes the vow knowing that all sentient beings will never enter Nirvana. It is, in a sense, a gift given to the world, with full knowledge that one will never receive the putative reward (entrance into Nirvana).

Christianity, and indeed, most religions, has similar thinking -- true merit comes from giving with no expectation of gain. Lethem is arguing that art, as a relationship between artist and audience, is founded on this very principle. The artist offers their soul to the audience. Of course money may change hands, but the act of artistic creation is at its heart one performed with no expectation of reward.

Art that matters to us—which moves the heart, or revives the soul, or delights the senses, or offers courage for living, however we choose to describe the experience—is received as a gift is received. Even if we've paid a fee at the door of the museum or concert hall, when we are touched by a work of art something comes to us that has nothing to do with the price. The daily commerce of our lives proceeds at its own constant level, but a gift conveys an uncommodifiable surplus of inspiration.

The stuff we pay for isn't the critical part of that gift. What really matters is how one person's soul touches our own, and there is no way to predict that or put a value on it (those two ideas are really the same idea here -- you put a value on things that you feel you can predict the impact of). This strikes me as a pretty good definition of art, even if it's pretty "feel-goody" and tough to nail down.

Art is a gift. At least, there must be a portion of it that is offered as a gift.

This is the reason why even a really beautiful, ingenious, powerful ad (of which there are a lot) can never be any kind of real art: an ad has no status as gift; i.e., it's never really for the person it's directed at.

Such a timeless idea, such a current idea -- that you can direct your gifts towards people you've never met, and that they can tell if you've directed it towards them or not. It fits the Internet, the ultimate in faceless mobs, and it fits ancestor worship. There are such rich currents flowing here that it's impossible to exhaust the implications.

What about gifting towards ourselves? Steph's been sharing some of the ideas she's been reading in the works of Pema Chodron and this seems to relate to her idea of "Being gentle on yourself". When people talking about pleasing themselves with their art, I think that misses the notion of the gift. Give yourself your own gift. Maybe artists, even if only subconsciously and partially, understand this, and that part of what makes someone capable of calling themselves an artist and producing and sharing art is the willingness to accept one's own gift.

Perhaps this underlying sense of self-worth (even though it may be overlaid with masses of insecurities and self-loathings) is that quality that people recognize as making someone "artistic". Artists are those who at the least gift themselves with their own creativity.

Of course, whether artists or not, few of us do a very good job of embracing our own gifts.

And we too often, as hucksters and bean counters in the tiny enterprises of our selves, act to spite the gift portion of our privileged roles. People live differently who treat a portion of their wealth as a gift. If we devalue and obscure the gift-economy function of our art practices, we turn our works into nothing more than advertisements for themselves.

Meaning no offense to the marketing flacks among us, but nobody can thrive if all they do is produce advertisements. Giving gifts strengthens the giver. Treating one's gifts as commodities weakens and shrivels one's own spirit. I know that when I give of myself freely and openly, again with no thought of reward, that's when I'm most rewarded.

During our conversation Saturday night I got kind of heated. I'm a profoundly competitive person, but I try very hard to keep a lid on that because I find that behaving competitively, especially in a non-competitive environment, makes me and everyone around me less happy. I let my desire to "win" overwhelm my own judgement and I hurt the folks around me. And myself.

But when I apologized (in my own halting, insecure fashion) and did what I could to repair the damage I'd wrought to the conversation, I felt inside myself an easing and an opening. The less I tried to control the conversation (even as I was apologizing), the more I got out of it.

Not a new insight, for me, but something I keep on forgetting day after day. Not entirely unlike maku-uchi men that way.

Lethem closes his article with a moving blessing and a meditation on the nature of artistic production, ego and egolessness:

As a novelist, I'm a cork on the ocean of story, a leaf on a windy day. Pretty soon I'll be blown away. For the moment I'm grateful to be making a living, and so must ask that for a limited time (in the Thomas Jefferson sense) you please respect my small, treasured usemonopolies. Don't pirate my editions; do plunder my visions. The name of the game is Give All. You, reader, are welcome to my stories. They were never mine in the first place, but I gave them to you. If you have the inclination to pick them up, take them with my blessing.

Do not fail to look over the extensive notes at the end of this article. They will startle and move you.


Thursday, March 22, 2007


Cinema of Gesture

posted by barsoomcore

At long last Steph and I settled down to watch Tsui Hark's Green Snake, a film alternately praised and reviled by critics. Teleport City praises it, but their reliability is shaky with us (why would anyone praise crap like The Stormriders?) The girl at the video store LOVED it, but she loved Vampire Hunters: The Twin Effect, so who knows? Tsui Hark (especially in these later years) has been pretty hit-or-miss, too (I still feel bad for Anita Mui in The Magic Crane), so there was justifiable trepidation on our part.

But Maggie was in it, and we'll forgive a lot for a bit of Maggie Cheung's charm and chops.

By the same token, it hurts to see those charms and chops mishandled. It can be done. Of course it takes great effort and determination, but look what those yahoos did with Penelope Cruz and Salma Hayek in Bandidas. You can't take these things for granted.

Fortunately, all of Maggie's talents get plenty of exposure here. This films starts with her dropping naked into an already-pretty-sexed up Indian dance number and getting awfully friendly with the ten ladies dancing. As Steph noted, it keeps your eyebrows pretty high up on your head for quite some time.

Tsui Hark, to his eternal blessedness, does NOT fall into the trap that the makers of Bandidas did: he recognizes that his primary job is to show off the tremendous beauty of his two leading ladies, Maggie and Joey Wong, and keeps that front and center throughout. Speaking of Joey, she's pretty enough, but doesn't she always sort of look like she's stoned out of her mind? Look:

See? Anyway, on with the show.

Large portions of this film are devoted to loving slow-motion shots of the two ladies more-or-less (or even completely) undressed, rolling around with each other in the rain or in a flower-filled bathtub. It's hard to hate. Especially when even that stuff never outstays its welcome.

I think one of the secrets to Tsui Hark's great films (besides his boundless imagination and ability to find brilliant actors) is how nothing ever outstays its welcome.

There's a couple of moments in Green Snake where White (the ladies play snake spirits, one named White (Wong) and the other Green (Cheung)) uses her magic powers to cause it to rain. She does so by tossing a cupful of wine into the air. The flying liquid is photographed in slow motion, of course, but with that Tsui Hark insouciance that renders it quick and lightweight as his best films are. Steph noted how different that moment would be in the hands of a director like Zhang Yimou, with half-a-dozen closeups and heart-breaking cinematography, an epic score swelling, showing his audience every detail, whereas Hark just sort of indicates what's happening.

"Look, she's got a cup, she chucks it in the air, it rains. Got it? Good, we're moving on."

Hark's way isn't necessarily better or anything, but I think this notion of indicating, of gesturing, goes a long way to explaining the lightness of these films.

One of the basic problems in "live" cinema (as opposed to animation) is that everything you point your camera at looks like whatever it is. Which, if you've got a jones to make films about sorcerers, martial artists who can fly, and snake sisters who just want a little loving, makes life very difficult. Hence special effects, which, when they work, take your audience with you on your fantastic voyage, and when they don't, make you look stupid.

But either way, they don't seem to contribute to the idea of "sketching" in cinema. It seems at first glance that this isn't even possible. Special effects or not, whatever you point your camera at, you get what you film. How do you indicate that your hero is walking into a house? You get your actor, and a house, and have him walk into it while the camera rolls. There's no indicating. Just showing.

But Hark overcomes this problem with something cinema has that static art cannot: speed. By accelerating the pace of everything until only the barest gestures indicate what's happening, Hark strips cinema down to what is, in essence, a sketch. The paradox of course is that his films are so lush and so beautifully shot that to speak of him "stripping down" cinema seems absurd. But I'm convinced that what's going on here in Green Snake.

When our heroines unload their awesome magical powers, there's very little in the way of depiction. Basically, they stand on a fake hilltop and wave their arms around. There's some smoke and some trickery, but it happens very fast and really, you just get shown enough so you can figure out what's going on. Then it's on to the next thing. The speed of the narrative, the incredible rate at which things happen, makes Hark's casual indicating of each moment acceptable. If the story didn't move at such a breakneck pace, this light touch would feel unfinished and hollow. It wouldn't satisfy, maybe only because you'd have enough time to say, "Wait a minute. That's pretty obviously a paper-mache snake Maggie Cheung's rolling around in the water with." Instead, you get just enough time for your brain to say, "Holy crap, lookit Maggie rolling around in the water. I guess that's a snake there with her." And then you're off to the next bit.

It appeals to me because at heart I'm that kind of storyteller. I'm not a careful plotter or a thoughtful developer of deep characters. I just like to have lots of shit happen. I'm an "And Then" storyteller: "And then they fell off the cliff. And then a giant mosquito caught them. And then the mosquito got squished by a giant flyswatter. And then..."

I can appreciate Zhang Yimou's determination to make every moment of his films rich with beauty and potency. It's lovely when it works (and incredibly tedious when it doesn't). But something in me responds to Hark's witty, rapid-fire lightness more enthusiastically.

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Sunday, March 18, 2007


Trusting Old People

posted by barsoomcore

Andrew Currie's just-released feature film Fido is a very charming, amusing and even heart-warming take on the zombie film. If you can imagine that. I'm sure you can, you're very imaginative.

One gets the feeling the idea for this film came from those last couple of minutes of Shaun of the Dead, with zombies carrying shopping bags and so on. Currie's film takes place in a world where the zombies have been domesticated (with the occasional failure here and there), and the world is now in the grip of fanatical security-minded zombie-hunters.

There's much gentle satire throughout the film, and Currie uses the zombie metaphor to bounce a variety of topics out at the audience. Targets such as security-justified losses of civil rights, paranoia, abuse of undesirables and neglect of the elderly all get clever shots taken at them.

"You can't trust old people. Any second you might turn around and find Grandpa coming for your throat."

It's all handled with admirable subtlety.

The young K'Sun Ray (I just report 'em, I don't make 'em up) carries the film as Timmy Robinson, with the help of Billy Connolly's hilarious turn as the zombie dubbed Fido (a joke that pays off better than you think it will a couple of times), but it's Carrie-Ann Moss' Helen Robinson, who goes from shallow "what-will-the-neighbors-think" paranoia to bold and fearless defender of her unconventional son without a moment out of place or awkward, who really lights up this film. Moss' performance is both savage and sympathetic, and her transformation is the heart of the whole story.

The early parts of the film echo Brad Bird's The Iron Giant in their mockery of mid-20th-century self-righteous propaganda, but Fido's got different axes on the grindstone than did Mr. Bird. Even with the same basic idea of a young boy who befriends a stranger that adults view with fear, Currie ventures into distinctly more uncomfortable terrain than Bird. Timmy's burgeoning friendship with Fido, as pathetic as it is, unravels the society around him, peeling away the layers of hypocrisy that allow everyone to deal with the unending terror of a world beset with the walking dead.

It is in this hypocrisy and its gleeful manifestations that Fido really shines. One of the ideas the film toys with is the difficulty so many of us having with forming strong attachments to others. We get hurt and we grow cynical and refuse to open our hearts to one another, to spare ourselves the pain of being betrayed yet again. Of course, in a world where your loved ones will rise from the dead and seek your braaaaaiiiinnnnnssss, there are whole levels to betrayal we rarely have to worry about.

If Grandad suffers a heart attack upstairs and dies in bed, he'll be coming downstairs looking for living flesh before you know he's a goner. This is exactly what happened to Timmy's father, and the poor man's trauma is both heart-rending and hilarious. Of course, the film fights against Dad's fear, and tells us that reaching out to others IS worth doing. Even when the "other" is a flesh-eating monster.

A worthy point, and made with exuberant savagery towards those who counsel paranoia (a fitting and relevant theme these days), but ultimately the film suffers from being unable to get past its own sentimentality. Everyone and everything is attacked in this film EXCEPT this notion, and that speaks of a lack of courage on the part of the film-makers. Truly great satire (it was Steph who convinced me of this) requires unflinching focus and follow-through. A great satire like Time Bandits leaves NO sentiment unscathed and no character unspotted with flung muck. Fido is, ultimately, too sentimental to turns its satirical gaze on Timmy's devotion.

A sentimental zombie film? Truly we are witnessing a passage in our culture.

Fido is charming and occasionally gut-bustingly funny in a clever and savage fashion that is quite welcome in this age of gross-out comedy.

And it suggests that a DEAD father is in many ways a superior parent to a LIVE father. Especially as they get older. Because you just can't trust old people.

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Monday, March 12, 2007


One In A Hundred

posted by barsoomcore

Zack Snyder's 300 is a fantastic bit of puffy/silly cinematic hoobajoobery. Decapitations, orgies, naked male torsos, horrible death, rape (sort of... more on that later) and a final sacrifice justified through terrible retribution.

And three, well, I can only call them ERRORS, two of which weaken the story, and rob it of true greatness, and one of which... one of which... actually kind of makes it MORE interesting.

But first off, let me come clean on Zack Snyder. I have consistently trashed his remake of Dawn of the Dead, and expressed a lot of scepticism regarding 300 when I heard he was attached. Early trailers and behind-the-scenes footage only increased my concern. But Snyder has overcome my concerns: his handling of Miller's story is exceptional. He manages the fight scenes (and basically, this movie is an extended fight scene) very well: allowing confusion to reign when it should, but providing clarity at the exact moments it's required.

He seems to have understood that this is not a film of traditional suspense; the audience is for the most part well aware of what's about to happen at each stage in the story. His job has not been to surprise his audience or defeat their expectations -- instead he is required to fulfill those expectations and find little more than innovative stagings to provide the novelty that the story does not.

Good example is the death of the battle rhino. First off, battle rhinos are good. All films with battle rhinos charging like berserk Cadillacs with four-foot hood ornaments are made better for the inclusion. You're never sorry you put a battle rhino in your picture. Even Muppets like Battle Rhinos:


You know the scene: enraged battle rhino charging towards our hero. One heroic figure stands unconcerned as several tons of CGI monster come barreling forward, and blithely chucks a spear at it. You KNOW how this ends, so the only thing to watch for is how Snyder shows it to you.

Anyway, Snyder gets the job done here and elsewhere throughout the film with verve and an uncompromising vision. A couple of times the effects stutter, but for the most part you can sit back and get blown away.

So Zack, I'm in your corner now, and looking forward to your next film. You exceeded my expectations and made for us a damn fine movie, full of some very impressive effects.

Part of what makes any effects shots work, of course, is the performance of the actors. Gerard Butler pulls off the required frenzy of bloodlust and savage determination for Miller's interpretation of King Leonidas, which is really the only performance in the film that matters. The other Spartans have to shout a lot, and King Xerxes has to look freaky, and then there's Leonidas' wife, Queen Gorgo. Sadly, not this Gorgo:

But Lena Headey's character brings us to the first of my three issues with 300: Queen Gorgo turns out to be either stupid or a slut.

Spoilers ahead: if you haven't seen 300, you might want to give the rest of this post a miss.

Gorgo wants the Spartan council to send aid to Leonidas (her hubby) and his beleaguered soldiers. To do so, she requires the support of the Spartan bad guy, Theron. She meets Theron and asks for his assistance. He's willing to help... if she's willing to stray a little from her marital vows.

Gorgo doesn't even protest. She doesn't try any other ways to convince Theron. She doesn't even extract any promises from him (much less WAIT until he's actually done anything helpful before giving up the lid on her honeypot). It's just, "Hey, baby" and she drops her toga.

This is the woman who is married to King Leonidas, the guy who's so unbelievably righteous he murders messengers just for not being polite enough. Head of a society so rigid little kids are sent out into hostile wastes to prove they deserve a place among their elders. It's unclear, but presumably marriage vows are handled with similar ferocity and lack of compromise.

And so when Gorgo offers herself up to a man she knows is deceitful and cowardly, we lose all respect for her. Either she's stupid, making such an ill-considered deal (which turns out poorly for her, until vengeful murder has its way), or her marriage vows just aren't very important to her. When the moment comes, all I could think is, "Leonidas would rather die than come home to his wife an adulterer." Clearly he would, and if I can see that, how come his wife can't?

It's a disappointing story decision that robs the final act of the film of much of its power. Gorgo's (and by proxy, Leonidas') honour is saved by coincidence rather than her own strength and it seems so terribly out of character with her behaviour in the first half of the film that it's hard to accept.

But by no means does the film fall apart. There are still goosebumps and "Fuck yeah!" moments aplenty. These Spartans are here to fight, and fight they do. Although they seem to relinquish their vaunted discipline pretty quickly in favour of wild-ass action scenes.

Not that I'm complaining -- I'm a long-time lover of the wild-ass action. But if I were Ephialtes the hunchback, and I'd been told by Leonidas that I wasn't welcome to join the Spartans because their incredibly disciplined fighting style meant that his handicaps would endanger the men around him, I'd be a little pissed at watched the Spartans then go down and fight in wild melees, where no discipline holds sway at all. Leonidas lies to Ephialtes, there's no other way to describe it.

And this is another disappointing decision. Better had Leonidas simply said, "No, you're ugly and we don't fight with ugly people," or had the Spartan's actual fighting style resembled his description, than this weak-kneed, cheaply thrown-together escape from the film's own cold-hearted premises. We can't make Leonidas TOO bad, otherwise the audience won't like him, so we'll PRETEND there's a legitimate excuse for him sending Ephialtes away, but then we won't abide by the conditions that excuse imposes on our choreography.

It would have been interesting to see the Spartans fight in strict hoplite formation (probably not historically accurate, but let's remember the battle rhinos, yes?). A challenge for a director to make such rigid formation and fighting style interesting. It would likewise have been interesting to see Leonidas' snobbery for what it is: a refusal to accept that which is different. A refusal to value contributions that do not carry the agreed-upon, external signs of greatness.

Sadly, the story does not offer either of those interesting possibilities, and so the audience is asked to accept a weak excuse to make the director's job easier. Disappointing.

Leonidas is a typical (one might say stereotypical) Miller hero: possessed of unquestioning confidence in his own moral judgement, which is of course backed up by his unmatchable physical prowess. Miller's universes mostly figure physical prowess as demonstrative of moral rectitude. His rejection of Ephialtes is unsurprising, indeed, necessary, in order that the moral quality of the film's universe remain consistent. There cannot be discord amongst the rippling torsos of the Spartans. There can't even be hairy chests, which for a bunch of Greek guys has to be considered one of the most egregious anachronisms of the film (followed closely by David Wenham's BLONDE Spartan).

But Leonidas possesses a self-serving cynicism unlike that of Batman, any of his Sin City tough guys, or even Garrett from Elektra: Assassin (the most cynical and interesting of all Miller's heroes). He flouts Spartan law by leading his soldiers to Thermopylae, travelling to battle on the thinnest of excuses, but when the moment of crisis comes and he must justify leading his men to their own deaths, on what does he base the moral foundation of his decision? Spartan law.

How can this be? How can his men accept this sudden demand that they follow the laws they've already walked themselves in violation of? Why would Leonidas, in violation of Spartan law (and willfully so), suddenly revert to demanding that those laws be upheld?

This is the decision that does NOT weaken the story. It reveals the bizarre and tortorous moral logic that this story rests upon, and renders the tale all the more fascinating for its momentary lifting of the lid of certainty and righteousness. For just a moment, we see Leonidas' self-centered will driving him forward to death. And his unwillingness to take the responsibility for the slaughter he is leading his men towards diminishes him fractionally, crucially, and reveals within him his own insecurity and fear. Because we know perfectly well that his men would stand and fight just because he told them to. He doesn't NEED the shelter of the law. He needs nothing more than his own infectious courage.

Externally, Miller's Leonidas is a man immune to uncertainty. He always knows what's right. He has no doubt in the righteousness of his efforts. But inwardly, he cannot bear the weight of that righteousness. Inwardly he must rely on that which he knows to be hollow: the laws of his kingdom and the honour and love of his (adulterous) wife. In his last moment he calls out for her, violating the Spartan code of hardness and strength (actual dialogue: "Spartans must be hard and strong. They must be hard. They must be strong."), for a woman who has already betrayed his trust.

It's in the failures that 300 is most interesting. It's a grand film, full of cinematic joy, and head and shoulder above most of what we get offered nowadays. Zack Snyder has taken Rodriguez' vision of "pure" cinema, unfettered by studios, sets or locations, and pushed it even further beyond what we have seen before. If it had been a little bit more aware of its own weaknesses, it would have been great.

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Monday, March 05, 2007


Haru Matsuri 2007

posted by barsoomcore

I had a great time at the 2007 Haru Matsuri at the Japanese Canadian Cultural Centre. I've been attending Tong-sensei's Friday night classes for about a month now, and it's been wonderful working with someone who actually knows how the forms are SUPPOSED to work, and can at least attempt to correct the spectacularly bad habits I've picked up over ten years of teacherless practice.

And on Saturday, those of us in that Friday class, as well as a variety of other folks from the area who also practice Katori Shinto Ryu, got together up at the JCCC and practiced together in full view of thousands of adoring spectators.

Maybe not "thousands".

Maybe not "adoring".

Not even, to tell the truth "in full view". Half the dojo space was sort of around the corner and out of the way.

But it was still tons of fun. And very educational. You really learn when you practice with someone who's studied with others. Everything is different -- timing, distance, speed. All the little things, all the things that add up to complete unfamiliarity. You have to pay attention.

It's one of the things that make paired kata practice so much more sophisticated than it first appears. The need to constantly adjust and respond to your partner's actions forces you into a sharp alertness and drives home those basic lessons again and again and again

Ma-ai. Correct distance. Just trying to maintain your correct distance from someone who's leaping and twisting about, flailing a wooden stick in the air, is immensely challenging.

Zanshin. Awareness. Even after you've finished, even when you're not practicing, staying aware of all that is happening around you. I find this lesson constantly needing renewal -- it's so easy to trick my focus into a narrow world and to forget that all else is really and truly part of the same system that I'm in. The guys practicing behind me aren't a distraction or something I need to shut out of my senses; they are part of the environment that I share, and as I practice, I must retain my awareness of them and where they are.

If only to avoid getting smacked with a piece of oak.

And of course for a teacher, which all of us are in some capacity, it's critical to have that wide awareness. That's something of what I was seeing in Sugino Sensei; how he would catch someone's movement halfway across the dojo and run over to interrupt and share some detail. Zanshin.

And just learning the basic stances and cuts again and again. You try and copy what Sensei teaches you, practice it and practice it, and then realise you've misunderstood something and have to overcoming all the conditioning you've already put in to the incorrect form. And then you do it again.

And you encounter other folks who learned a different emphasis, some other way of completing a movement. Sometimes it feels alien and awkward, sometimes it sets off a light bulb in your head and suddenly you understand so much of what you'd never understood before.

My understanding of a simple set of moves in the third kata got revolutionized by Dennis's patient instruction, and a whole sequence appeared to me in a new light. Tong-Sensei's explanations of o-kachi has made me wonder how I ever conceived of doing it otherwise. I have so much to learn, and it is such a joy learning it.

There is no goal in all this. There is no point at which I will finish learning and correcting and trying. I will never complete this journey, except in my death, which will come all too soon, I'm sure. But in the meantime, I hope I can continue studying and practicing this lovely, lovely art, for in that practice I find I learn far more than just postures and motions.

Thanks to Tong-sensei, to my practice partners for the day Dennis and Andre, to Lynne and Steve for coming out and giving moral support, and of course to Steph, not only for being a part of it but for all the great pictures. And of course, to everyone who took part and made it so exciting.


Friday, March 02, 2007


An Ugly Lesson In Beauty

posted by barsoomcore

Okay, I know nothing really writes itself, but seriously, if anything was going to write itself, it has to be this:

Look! It's Salma Hayek and Penelope Cruz dressed up like cowgirls! Look at how charming they are! They've got guns, too! Cute hats! And it looks like a cowboy movie, so they probably ride around on horses, wear chaps and maybe corsets and look at them!

How could you POSSIBLY go wrong with this? I ask you, doesn't it seem like all you have to do is point your camera at these two and the rest is done for you? I mean, we know these ladies can really act, so have them fire their guns every so often, maybe throw a lariat and rob a bank and you can head for the beach. You'd have to really work hard to mess this up, don'tcha think?

Sadly, the folks who made this stinkbomb have an overactive work ethic.

And obviously don't appreciate the abilities and immense natural charm of their leading ladies. I don't think I've ever seen either woman photographed so clumsily, with such ineffective display of their considerable beauty.

Maybe this poster provides a clue to what went wrong:

If anyone can explain how advertising a movie with Penelope Cruz and Salma Hayek by covering up their faces is a good idea, I'd love to hear it. I mean, come on, this is a total hamsmacker, and with any hamsmacker, your every effort ought to be towards selling the obvious. Penelope Cruz and Salma Hayek are beautiful women. Anyone who's going to see this movie is going to see it pretty much for that reason alone -- because they want to see Salma and Penelope dress up as cowgirls. Not cover their faces with hankerchiefs.

This dreary, horrible movie fails on so many levels I don't think I can be bothered to list them all, but the worst of the whole thing is that the ladies end up needing a guy to save their pretty heinies in the end. That tells you all you need to know.

And it's not even exploitative. It's just dull.

Go and rent the German movie Bandits for some awesome lady desperado action. And leave Bandidas out in the desert where it belongs.

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