Thursday, September 29, 2005

Serenity opens Tomorrow

serenity2Serenity Opens Tomorrow. It is Joss Whedon's directorial debut for the big screen and is a sequel to his television series "Firefly".

I saw it Tuesday at a preview showing for press and bloggers. It will be interesting to see if the rest of the movie-viewing world responds to it the way I did. It is something of a burning curiosity with me: What will the movie-going public make of Serenity? I dunno. I know what I thought of it but, since I am not necessarily typical in every way, I can't reliably predict what other people will think.

If you look at the film in objective terms -- the usual quality metrics that everyone agrees on but nobody really cares much about -- Serenity gets middle-of-the-road marks. The special effects are good -- but not unusually so. The art direction and cinematography are also fine, but the composition and editing seem a bit television-ish -- tightly framed and edited, seldom making use of a big screen's ability to pull back from the action and still keep the audience engaged.

The story may strike people as not particularly original. This comes, in large part, from the shorthand language Whedon uses in storytelling. He is very adept at using pop-culture stereotypes to tell a story in the most compact, efficient manner. His characters step out onto the screen and almost immediately, from their costume and their first few words, the audience knows pretty much who they are. They evoke other, similar, characters we have seen before. His plotting uses the same shorthand. Whedon can start his story right in the middle of the action because he knows that we will recognize the plot elements as the same sort of archetypes that help us understand his characters.

Of course, I may just be blowing smoke in all of this talk of pop-culture archetypes. I have seen every episode in Firefly, his TV show that Serenity continues, and it could well be that my sense of recognition is not so much because Whedon draws on the work of earlier directors -- notably Howard Hawks' westerns such as Rio Bravo -- as because of the seventeen hours of material about the characters and their situation that I have already seen.

And originality is somewhat overrated. It adds a degree of difficulty to writing a script and properly increases the score for a good performance, but it is not particularly a thing that is good in itself. The last altogether original film I remember seeing is Wax, or the Discovery of Television Among the Bees which was totally, mind-blowingly original and quite dreadful. suggests that the filmmaker has not made any films in the last ten years so we may be allowed to hope he got some help.

What worries me about Serenity, and its reception by the marketplace, is that while it is a Science Fiction film, and those seem to be well received, it is also a Western -- a genre that appears to have died. Without giving away too much about the film, these two pictures show what I am talking about here.

Serenity is Science Fiction. See, everything is blue in this shot and mostly made out of glass and metal. Science Fiction.


Serenity is a Western. Here we see two of our heroes shooting back over their sholders at the bad guys who are pursuing them out of town. Clearly a Western (although, to be fair, nobody runs out of bullets and throws his gun.)

Like I said, I am curious what people will think about the film. That curiosity can only be satisfied if people actually go to see the film so they can react to it one way or the other. Universal doesn't seem to be doing a lot of advertising -- or at least too little to suit me -- but their tactic of inviting bloggers to preview showings is novel and I'm curious to see how that works out as well. (I am doing my bit for them here.) In an effort to get people to go see the film I have discussed it here in very general terms. People who are already Firefly fans will go see Serenity no matter what I write here. I've tried to pique the curiosity of those who may not have been aware of the film without overselling it. Because I want to find out what people think of a Space Western.

And, as for me -- what did I think of Serenity? Best F***ing SF film in years!

But that's just me.

Tuesday, September 27, 2005


carbomb"Man said to be Zarqawi's No. 2 killed" says the Reuters Headline. It runs with a photo of a smoking automobile. Was Zarqawi's guy in the car? I click on the picture to bring up the related story. Nope, just another random car bomb. Why did Reuters run that photo? Don't they have a photo of Abu Azzam, the man said to have been killed? Hmmm.

I close the photo window and return to reading the main story. "BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Al Qaeda's second-in-command in Iraq, Abu Azzam, was shot dead in Baghdad this week, the U.S. military said on Tuesday, a potential blow to the group at the heart of Iraq's insurgency." Again, Hmmmm -- a potential blow? I wonder what an actual blow would be like?

A few paragraphs later: "The death may mark progress against militants but attacks continued unabated." This is a prime example of the al Reuters classic butt-spliced compound sentence. The form is this: <qualified good news> but <unqualified bad news>. The deaths may mark progress ... but the attacks continue unabated.

Next paragraph, another way to look at the story as bad news: "It is uncertain how much intelligence Azzam's killing will deliver, particularly since it appears he was shot without being interrogated."

A bit later: "Zarqawi, a Jordanian, is allied to Osama bin Laden and his al Qaeda network. His group has claimed many of the deadliest attacks in Iraq, and has pledged all-out war against Iraq's majority Shi'ite population, an effort to provoke civil war and drive the country further into chaos." This one is subtler, can you find the spin in this one? It's the word "further" in the phrase "to ... drive the country further into chaos." The implications being that even without Zarqawi's civil war (which I don't think he has the leverage to start) Iraq is already in "chaos". This is a running theme of Reuters coverage -- that the situation in Iraq is spiralling out of control -- chaos.

If you look at the photo that Reuters chose to run with the story you will see a nice metaphor for the situation in Iraq and Reuters coverage of it. In the foreground is the smoking ruin of one car blown up by the terrorists. In the background, two Iraqi fire trucks, several Iraqi firemen with hoses and a crowd of rubberneckers standing on the sidewalk. The photo focuses on the burning car -- and the fire trucks, firemen and people are just background. Reuters focuses on the individual acts of violence and ignores the background of political progress and an Iraqi populace who increasingly look to the new government to deal with the growingly-isolated terrorists.

People say that Reuters ignores good news from Iraq, but this is far from the truth. The news service has a special office just for dealing with positive stories from Iraq. In the office is a single desk holding a computer in an airtight glass box. In the box with the computer is a torque wrench and a supply of adjectives, adverbs and conjunctions. When good news arrives from Iraq a highly-trained operator slides his hands into the rubber gloves on the side of the box and uses the wrench to affix qualifiers to the story. Only after enough words and torque have been applied to spin the story properly can the box be opened and the story removed.

Sunday, September 25, 2005



A word from our sponsor...

Joss Whedon, the Oscar® - and Emmy - nominated writer/director responsible for the worldwide television phenomena of BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER, ANGEL and FIREFLY, now applies his trademark compassion and wit to a small band of galactic outcasts 500 years in the future in his feature film directorial debut, Serenity. The film centers around Captain Malcolm Reynolds, a hardened veteran (on the losing side) of a galactic civil war, who now ekes out a living pulling off small crimes and transport-for-hire aboard his ship, Serenity. He leads a small, eclectic crew who are the closest thing he has left to family -– squabbling, insubordinate and undyingly loyal.

... Ok, maybe that was a bit more than one word but it's over now and we can return to our regular, irregular blogging.

Joss Whedon's first film as a director comes out next Friday and you should plan to see it. Whedon is best known as the creator of the television shows Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and Angel. He also created the television show Firefly, which struggled to grow its audience and was cancelled after one season which was unfortunate because Firefly was one of the best written and most interesting Science Fiction television shows ever.

Whedon has a real talent for dialog and character development, and a proven track record of creating believable, endearing characters in television shows with appallingly silly premises. His first big success, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, was a television spin-off of an amusing but lightweight movie about a high school girl who, in addition to school and homework, must save the world from an outbreak of vampires. Given that unprepossessing premise, there is no particular reason why Buffy should have been one of the best written, and most enjoyable shows on television -- but it was.

Firefly's premise was a bit less problematic; it was set in a future world that had a number of parallels to the western United States just after the Civil War. The show's protagonist had fought on the losing side of a war of succession. He seeks out-of-the-way places where he, his spaceship, and his crew can make a living and try not to attract attention. That last part -- not attracting attention -- turns out to be difficult and provides most of the basis for the plot.

Firefly was very well written and vastly entertaining. The characters were very engaging and the plot had a strong arc to hold the individual episodes together. This is something that Whedon struggles with sometimes -- losing track of where he is going with a series. But if Whedon seemed lost sometimes in Buffy and Angel -- not really knowing where he was going with the story from episode to episode -- he seemed to have the problem under control with Firefly. It was Whedon's best, most mature and most satisfying work to date.

But it had a fatal flaw. If you've been reading closely you might have caught it. Firefly was a Western -- a Space Western -- and for some reason Western's just don't work right now, especially on television. When you bear in mind that it was a Western, you see that it was gutsy of Fox to have backed Firefly at all and small wonder that they pulled the plug.

Once the series was neatly and finally cancelled it could be released as a box set on DVD. The Firefly box set sold quite well and its success doubtless played a role in Whedon's ability to get backing to make a movie based on the series. Serenity opens Friday. I am quite hopeful about it.

If you are a blogger and you are interested in attending a preview showing before the actual release of Serenity you can agree to write about it in your blog and attend a special showing for bloggers. More information is available in this posting on Maybe I'll see you there.

Update: 9/25 6:30pm
Apparently all the spaces available for bloggers in the preview showing have been spoken for. If you aren't already on the list you will have to wait the extra four days.

Sunday, September 18, 2005

Art Sale for Hurricane Victims


Joel Haas, Raleigh area sculptor and friend of mine, is selling bas relief resin panels of angels at auction with all profits going to help victims of Hurricane Katrina. The image above is a detail from one of the pieces. Joel is using his blog as a venue for the auction -- each item is a posting and all bids are made by attaching comments with name and amount bid. The process is described in more detail in Joel's blog. If you are interested in bidding but find the process intimidating, feel free to contact me and I will help. My email address appears on the right-hand side of this blog.

Joel is a good guy and these panels are beautiful. If you are possessed of the right combination of good taste, civic spirit and financial sufficiency you can help the victims of Katrina and get a lovely piece of art at the same time. Click on the image of the angel (or here) to go to Joel's blog.

Friday, September 16, 2005

Daily Tarheel May Have to Close

jeansAfter over a century of publication, the University of North Carolina's student newspaper, the Daily Tarheel, faces a crisis -- one it is not clear they can survive. Recent events suggest that there may soon be no one left to write for them.

The crisis started with the publication of an opinion column by Jillian Bandes, a new daily columnist writing her third column for the paper. Her first two columns had been generally well received; both were humorous pieces on innocuous topics -- female body image and the campus "Greek" experience, notably sorority "rush" week. There were, to be sure, a few letters to the editor from insulted sorority sisters, but the young Turks of campus journalism have no time for the Greeks and there was no real controversy. As for the body image piece, fat chicks on campus apparently had another slice of pizza and decided to get over it. Jullian's first two columns were fine. Her third column was trouble.

Jillian's third column was a clear example of why a newspaper should have an editor. She decided to write a humorous piece on racial profiling of Arabs in airports. In it she took the perfectly defensible position that even Arabs should support such racial profiling. She has a point there. While it is inconvenient to be singled out to be searched, it is even more inconvenient to watch an airplane disintegrate around you as you begin the six-mile fall to the sea. Where Jillian went astray is in her rather ill-advised humorous take on the subject. I'm sure you could write an article that suggests that body-cavity searches can be fun, but it's probably best not to do so in a piece about Arab-American relations and racial profiling. In a happier world an editor would take the writer aside and tell her that her piece was, sadly, slightly too long, and indicate to her the parts that she could cut to save a column-inch or two... and her reputation.

But that would be censorship so nothing of the sort was done. Her piece ran as written and she was not immediately fired. She was, to be sure, fired -- and before her next column ran -- but, says editor Chris Coletta, it wasn't because of the content of her piece. Ms. Bandes was let go because of "Journalistic Malpractice," and her firing had nothing to do with her expressing an opinion that is anathema to the almost-exclusively liberal UNC community. "I fired her," said Coletta, "because she strung together quotes out of context. ... Bandes didn’t inaccurately quote anyone. (I have her notes as proof.) But you don’t necessarily have to make things up to get them wrong or to mislead the reader. ... Bandes told the three people quoted in her column ... that she was writing an article about Arab-American relations in a post-9/11 world. ... Racial profiling was, in fact, part of their conversation. But it wasn’t their entire conversation."

So there you have it. Bandes wasn't fired because of the content of her piece. The Daily Tarheel was reluctantly forced to let her go because she had violated their journalistic standards. Clumsy, ill-advised attempts at humor; interviewing people at length and quoting them selectively; telling your sources your general topic but not your particular focus; leaving your sources feeling a bit used -- these are all offences that get a student journalist fired on the first offence at The Daily Tarheel. They have no place at a student newspaper. So far only Bandes has been fired. No announcement has been made about when the rest of the writing staff will be let go or what use will be made of the space in the Carolina Union currently occupied by the Tarheel.

Thursday, September 15, 2005


notragedySome years ago I was driving down a busy street and I saw a young lady standing on the sidewalk. Her face was red and had a look of open-mouthed horror. She was holding a short dog leash that terminated in an empty collar. A few feet away in the heavy traffic was the remains of what had been a puppy. When I think of the word Tragic that young lady comes readily to mind.

Around the same time I overheard a group of women talking about a cat that had been run over. Since the owner of the cat was not present, one of the women felt free to voice her opinion: Well, that's what you get when you let your cat run around loose, she said. She seemed quite angry at the cat's owner for not taking more care to control the animal. To her the story of the cat was not at all a tragedy. It was all about bad management and she was rather cross about it.

In Greek drama "Tragedy" is meant to instruct. Tragedies are cautionary tales that show that innocence and good intentions are not sufficient. The hero can still have hamartia -- a lack of balance or "fatal flaw" that causes him, although blameless, to act wrongly, leading to his destruction. For the lesson to be properly learned it is important for the hero to be without blame. If we are angry at the hero then we will distance ourselves from him, and from his problems, and we will not be forced to examine our own phyches for the subtle errors that tragedies explore.

It is important to remember that tragedy focuses on the results of our actions -- not merely on unfortunate events. I have owned a cat who would reliably make a dash for the door whenever I came in carrying a bag of groceries, knowing that being so burdened I would find it difficult to perform the manoeuvre needed to keep the cat inside -- kicking the cat and slamming the door in one continuous motion. That cat eventually disappeared and I have no doubt that like the cat in the conversation above, she was hit by a car. Tragic clearly, but much of the "fatal flaw" was to be found in the cat herself.

You might think that, since tragedy concerns itself with the results of one's own actions, it would follow that events totally outside of one's control would not be tragic. If someone is walking down the sidewalk and he is is struck by a giant meteor, or someone eles is sitting in her office when a terrorist flys an airplane into the window, where is the action that caused these events? What is the "fatal flaw" that marks the event as a tragedy? There is one. It is a flaw that we all have, in varying degrees. We like to forget we are mortal. We don't always do the most important things first and, if we are suddenly reminded of our own mortality, they often never get done at all.

I think that we, as a society, are afflicted with a petulant refusal to experience tragedy, simply as tragedy and, as a result, we fail to learn the lessons that tragic events can teach us. We insist that our lives go smoothly and, when unfortunate events happen we immediately look for someone with whom we can become angry. If we are personally affected by the tragic events we look for someone else to blame so we don't have to deal with our own lack of preparation -- physical, financial or spiritual -- and, even if we do blame ourselves, self-directed anger is neither a fair nor a helpful response. If we are not personally affected we have an irrational tendency to blame the victim. Well, that's what you get if you let your cat run around loose, we think. It saves us from the pain of empathy and allows us to refuse to come to terms with the fact that our cats might prefer a shorter life in the sunshine, or that our own children might make mistakes and come to harm.

One of the ways we shield ourselves from experiencing the instructive pain of tragic events is to insist on a false dichotomy -- that an event must be either a "tragedy" or an "outrage" but that it cannot be both. If we can find the smallest trace of culpability we will focus on it, and the comfortable, soothing anger it affords us, and ignore the larger part which, being merely tragic, we don't like to think about. We do this so reliably that, when dealing with an event that actually is more of an outrage than a tragedy, pundits can safely assume that in calling it a tragedy they will be understood as saying that the victims themselves were largely to blame.

Monday, September 12, 2005


Iron Man and BatmanI have a number of terribly important, if slightly ponderous, postings sitting as half-done drafts -- but they will have to wait. I have bought myself a pro account as a more convenient way to serve images and I have loaded up some photos I took over the Labor Day weekend to try it out. So, a bit of photo-blogging about DragonCon.

DragonCon is a huge SF / Media / Comics / Gaming / etc. convention held yearly in Atlanta in the later part of the summer. DragonCon gets bigger every year and this year, despite the high price of gasoline, it seemed bigger than ever. Some fans, who concentrate on a particular area, may tend to disparage DragonCon for its sprawling lack of focus. Those who are mostly interested in written Science Fiction, for instance, may tend to prefer the smaller, more bookish, World Science-Fiction Convention that rotates from location to location rather like the Olympics (this year it was in Glasgow and next year L.A.).


One answer to that is that DragonCon is so large that if you take just the written-sf program items and ignore the rest you have a decent World Con. This, for instance is a very World-con-esque photo of Anne and Todd McCaffrey who read excerpts from a novel they haven't quite finished.


Anne Crispin hosted a memorium session to remember Andre Norton, a very popular fantasy writer who died this year after a writing career that spanned over 60 years. [See teleoscope: Andre Norton RIP]


Also on the Andre Norton memorium panel was my long-time frind Brad Linaweaver, a writer who lives in California. Brad is currently collaborating with ...


... actor Richard Hatch, shown here discussing a plot element from one of the Battlestar Galactica novels on which he and Brad are working.

One of the chief pleasures of DragonCon for me is the opportunity to see my old frinds, like Brad (above) or Bill Ritch (shown here announcing that the performance of the play he had written would be slightly delayed while they got the sound system to work.)


Bill is a computer programmer who lives in Atlanta and spends his free time producing radio drama with the Atlanta Radio Theater Company ...


... (shown here performing an adaptation of A E Van Vogt's Weapon Shops).


Bill also writes and directs plays for the Mighty Rassilon Art Players.



MRAP (pronounced Em-Rap) usually put on one play during the convention and this years offering -- Romeo and Ethel, the Pirate's Daughter -- is a musical...


... and actually quite good.

Another attraction of DragonCon is the large number of attendees who make some sort of costume to wear at the con. Some of the costumes involve many people and hundreds of hours of work...


... such as this one which won first place in the Masquerade.

Other costumes are "hall" costumes which people wear around the convention.

dc72 dc31


Some of the hall costumes are amazing examples of craft, aesthetics and hard work.



... and other costumes consist mostly of attitude...


... or of paint (for which you will have to view my slide show). [Warning: not work safe.]

And, of course, DragonCon is a good place to meet new people.


Well, that's all I have time for. I tend to spend much too much time tinkering with my images. [One of the photos above had a partial figure removed, can you guess which one?] And all the tinkering slows me down. But I do enjoy it. Consider the following image from Romeo and Ethel. The subjects were moving and blurred and the light was a bit dim for proper autofocus so the original image was quite blurred. But I kinda liked it. I liked the motion and the way the blurring abstracted the images. But I also knew that if I posted it to a photo blog it would just look like a crappy picture. So, I tinkered a bit more...


Friday, September 09, 2005

Must-View Photoblog

A young man from New Orleans has put up a slide show with commentary that documents his experience of the huricane in New Orleans. You simply must read it.

It is amazing that one guy with a digital camera and a Kodak EasyShare account can provide ten times as much information about Katrina and New Orleans as all the major media put together.

Update: 19 Sept 2005.

Someone pointed out to me that the slideshow had moved to a new address. I have updated it and it should work again.