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Backward Compatible?

Posted by Dirck on 12 August, 2020

Exciting news! The Playstation 5 will allow use of Playstation 4 controllers! Apparently! For older games!

While this is all true, according to an article I saw the headline of through someone’s tweet, it’s not really the point of today’s uncommon foray into the olden-style content on this site. On Sunday, I was rattling around in my Pit of Solitute, deciding what was going to step in for dear old Duofold that exhausted its ink last week. The conclusion was Parker 45, as it’s been an age since I had one out for a run.

Choosing a 45 means deciding on what sort of point it’s going to have fitted, and that led to me poking around in the box I keep various loose point-units in. Esterbrooks, Osmiroids, and others, all rolling around together and never a hint of ill-feeling between them. I found the bead-tube I was after, the one with the little 0.8mm stub I ground… and it lay between a couple of TWSBI points, a situation which made me frown.

The front part of a fountain pen in a plastic carrying tube.


I knew I had one, because I had a clear memory of this picture on the page for the TWSBI Diamond– I updated it very recently, after all, and even if I had not, the mention of “TWSBI point” brings a clear reproduction of the above image into my mind, for I am not saddled with aphantasia. The frown came because I had absolutely no memory of having two.

Another reason the memory of one sticks is that it represents… well, not a failure, but a failure to attempt. I was intending to experiment with re-profiling the shoulders of the point to make it more flexible, but ambition never (yet) transformed into action. I had a reason to have one. I had less reason to have a second.

There’s also not a lot of pressing reasons to have more fountain pens than fingers, either, so I can’t say no reason.

It turns out that at some point in the past, I ordered a stub for a TWSBI Diamond. I then promptly slung it into storage and forgot its very existence.

In the time since, I got a TWSBI Classic with a stub, and discovered that it’s a really nice point. I was therefore less vexed with my lapse than excited with my discovery, especially since I had a Diamond in battery at the moment.

But… the Diamond in current rotation is a 580 ALR. The newest of the breed. The point, assuming I got it with the never-touched experimental item, may be contemporary with the release of the 540 in 2011. It could be older. Can they possibly swap around, across such a yawning chasm of time?

Evidently, yes.

I should probably say “Yes, but with qualifications” because you’ll notice the textured shell of the ALR is attached to the stasis pod’s platform, and the transparent old-style shell is on the pen. There are some differences in the two sections construction that make me unwilling to try switching the point/feed units around in the shells, especially given the older Diamond’s reputation for cracking.

I’m still very pleased with the arrangement, because this stub is just as pleasant as the one on my Classic. I had it in mind that TWSBI changed the source of their points more recently than this one would have been made, but if they did it wasn’t the writing properties of the stub that prompted the switch.

I’m still a little worried about the utter blank in my memory regarding the purchase of the section, but I guess I’ll have to accept that I’m as fallibly human as the next goldfish. HEY THERE’S A CASTLE OVER THERE NEAT!

Today’s pen: A somewhat hybridized TWSBI Diamond 580 ALR
Today’s ink: Pelikan HEY THERE’S A CASTLE OVER THERE NEAT! Violet


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Weekend Treats

Posted by Dirck on 5 April, 2019

Here’s something startling– Youtube’s algorithms did something good. We know, of course, that they seem to feel putting ugly parodies of childhood favourites in the way of people watching actual childhood favourites is a fine way of gathering money, and that anyone who takes an interest in the history of the last century must be shown some modern ethno-state promoter’s ideas because that makes plenty of clicks and engagement and misery… but this morning, instead of doing any of that, Youtube offered me this, which I will likely be trying soon:

To be honest, what I look at on Youtube suggests this about as much as watching an episode of The Teletubbies calls for a follow-up of some blowhard explaining why phrenology proves the situation of the people in Flint, Michigan is deserved. However, I’m not going to complain when it falls out this way. Let’s have more gentle cooking instruction and less of that other nonsense.

Today’s pen (decided upon well before I saw the video): Muji Cylindrical Aluminum Pen
Today’s ink: Waterman Florida Blue

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Time for Another Story

Posted by Dirck on 11 May, 2018

…but not one of mine.  I happened upon a person with a very mellow voice reading one of the stories that H.P. Lovecraft wrote that isn’t tainted by racism, and I thought that would be a nice way to observe a Friday.

Note that I never said it was without problems, although it seems to me that the class and formal-education snobbery Lovecraft also dabbled in isn’t too chunky here; there’s even a bit of “experts don’t know as much as they think,” a very modern sentiment.

Today’s pen of eerily unplaceable hue: Parker Vacumatic (the shadow-wave (eek!) which as of posting time isn’t yet visible on the site)
Today’s ink, mysterious of composition: Waterman Blue, vintage

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Posted by Dirck on 15 October, 2015

Day What How Much Duration Pen Ink
  • 13 October
  • 14 October
  • 15 October
  • First draft of “Aliasing Harmonic”.
  • Pressing on with the first draft.
  • Entering what looks like the final lap.
  • Six manuscript pages.
  • Five pages.
  • Nine pages.
  • 40 min.
  • 35 min.
  • 50 min.

Because I live in Canada, I was observing Thanksgiving last Monday, and trying to get a clear notion in my head whether our version of it is as bound up in pretending at cordial relations with First Nations in the early part of the colonization effort as in the US (I can’t think of an equivalent to the legends of the Plymouth Colony’s “first Thanksgiving”) or if it’s always just been a semi-pagan harvest thing like Lammas or the Dark Morris that happened to get some turkey-eating involved due to proximity to the US and the fact that birds are no respecters of national borders.

No conclusions reached– there’s religion, politics and attempted genocide(s) involved, so it’s hard to get a clear view of the history.

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Crush Crumble Chomp

Posted by Dirck on 3 June, 2014

I’m distracting myself from finishing that damned story, but I made a promise to my wife I’d get this entry out while the effect was still fresh.  It’s a movie review without reference to any other reviewers work, regarding something that’s still in the theatres.  I’m probably in over my head.

But first, a word on the combination of logistics and the effect of expectations.  My wife and I have not been to a movie together and unaccompanied since the decent but slightly silly The Happening.  My son appeared shortly thereafter, and because we got a late start on child-bearing and keep odd company, we’d no one to look to for babysitting– friends either physically distant, past the screeching infant phase of their lives, or not inclined to deal with such things in the first place, and parents too old for the pressure.  However, with the lad’s sixth birthday impending, he’s reached an age when the beginnings of civilized behaviour are starting to appear.  This means that we sometimes think it might be safe for his grandparents to be left alone with him for an hour or two; like the cats, they’re not to be rubbed the wrong way, folded, or hurled onto the roof.  And that means we can look at going to a film.

But the first film seen in six years is going to have unfair expectations set against it, right?  Or rather– the first film for which the vast heaps of treasure are paid out for the privilege of seeing it in a first run theatre.  We’re not hermits.  Anyway, that’s the context of what follows.

We went to see Godzilla.  I’d also run expectations up on the foundation of the ads.  It was, to look at those, a proper Godzilla film, as opposed to the 1998 foolishness (which, because I am a devil and an idiot, we had gone to while on our honeymoon; thank heavens Jean Reno was in the cast).  Godzilla as an impossibly huge, atom-powered, semi-allegory, rather than a hermaphroditic Bruce Campbell caricature with a fondness for fish.  I was excited, and my wife wanted to see me giggling with glee at the action.

And there’s the first problem.  Action.  There is action, to be sure, but it is interspersed with such deserts of not-action that by the time if comes around, all your blood has pooled in your feet.  Holllywood apparently doesn’t quite get how to make a proper kaiju film, and the problem appears to be this– they think it’s a disaster film.  There are similarities, in that something terrible happens on a rather large scale.  However, the central hook of the disaster film (and, to my taste, central failing) is the fates of the people caught up in it.  We have tragic swimming, leaping across chasms, pinnings under heavy things, immolations, but it’s all at the scale of humans.  Kaiju films do not work at this scale, because what we’re there for is, at that scale, a mere toenail briefly filling the background.  The closest approach to doing kaiju right with that sort of approach was Cloverfield, and when I say closest I mean the best possible, ever, and any further attempts should be shelved as a waste of time and effort.  I liked Cloverfield, and I suspect the reason I like it and not this new Godzilla is that it isn’t Godzilla and there’s rather fewer contrivances demanded to keep the human characters in the action.

Well, to be fair, there’s two big contrivances, and at this point I’m going to start waving spoilers around rather freely.  One is that the son of The Only Man Who Understands What’s Happening is a highly trained soldier with enough freedom and loose cash to visit Japan at a moment’s notice, and thus get initially inducted into the action.  The other is that his efforts to get home to his wife and son are constantly derailed by the appearance of the various monsters who seem to be following the same route as he is.  By the end of the film, I leaned over an whispered to my wife, “Obviously, the problem is that the monsters don’t like that guy. They should run him out to sea on a raft, and the problem is solved.”

Putting the emphasis on the human face of the drama also apparently required Hollywood to turn on the saccharine spigots.  Our central protagonist (who is not, to our bitter disappointment, Bryan Cranston, whose absence from most of the film is bad news indeed) has a wife and child, and as you might guess, they are frequently menaced with the possibility of squishing during the supposed climax.  However, not content with this particular use of the cliche, protagonist also finds himself in loco parentis to a Japanese kid in short pants during an earlier rampage– as obvious a reference to the noxious Kenny of Gamera and some of the more kid-friendly Godzilla films of the late 1960s and early ’70s as one could fear.   But wait!  There’s more!  A sweet innocent little girl is threatened by a tsunami which somewhat inexplicably accompany’s Godzilla’s big entry.  The same tsunami also menaces a helpless doggie, just in case your pancreas was still working.  It’s an almost Spielberg level of unnecessary emotional manipulation, although Spielberg is usually a little better at making it work.

Adding to my complaints is a sort of running gag nuclear countdown– a device meant to put an end to the monster menace by blowing up in their faces, which one of them steals and inconveniently embeds in San Francisco.  The exact yield of the item is never specified, but it’s some number of megatons, which means it’s a really big explosion when it goes off.  Our intrepid protagonist volunteers to join the squad tasked with either de-activating it or getting it far enough out to sea that it won’t destroy the city.  When the squad arrives at it, it is down what the 3D glasses suggested was a very deep hole indeed.  There’s 27 minutes left on the clock, and the access panel is sticking a little.  Personally, I look for a crowbar, but the decision is made for six guys to carry this very heavy object out of the very deep hole, at least a kilometer to the seafront, put it on a tour boat, hotwire the boat, and… get rescued by a deus ex helicopter.  All of which happens, at least for the protagonist; his buddies Pay The Ultimate Price, somewhat predictably.

I have to imagine that the hole was not as profound as it looked for this to work at all.  However, when the boat gets up and running, there are five minutes on the clock.  If it were the sort of boat that can do 100km/h, the bomb could be gotten… nothing like far enough away.  The boat is the sort that probably glows with pride if it manages 40km/h with a following tide.  And yet, the city is saved, in so much as only some of it was rolled around on by huge monsters.  It’s the one thing too much to swallow (and I gleefully accepted the Traditional Nonsense Science Exposition scene about the end of Act I).

Gripes also about the monsters, but minor ones.  The central gripe is that we hardly get to see them at their tussles.  The action is implied by wreckage.  It is obscured by swirling dust.  It is shown diminished on a background television, which brushed up against an insult to the audience.  If the few clear looks we’re given of the actual monster wrasslin’ is anything to go by, there was the potential here for a proper Godzilla movie.  The fact that it hints at the potential without ever really engaging it is enough to make a fan like me a little angry.  That the monsters are not extremely overheated stuntmen in heavy suits who are stumbling around a large model city is small potatoes next to that; the computer effects were quite good, to be honest, but whatever element in the human brain is that detects fakery was not fooled.  The addition of 3D to the pot was really neither here nor there– as was the case in the ’50s and the ’80s, when there were also 3D movies, it’s a mere condiment, and easily lost in the face of miscarried storytelling.

I guess it really comes down to pacing.  If this film were 95 minutes long rather than 125, and that reduction were at the expense of protagonist getting to and from places and the general, “Oh, who will save the little doggie?!” junk, this could be a cracking good example of a Godzilla movie.  As it is, I’m hard pressed to recommend even waiting for it on video.  Get thee to a place of renting GMK: All Out Monster Attack, or any of the Gamera films of the late 1990s; they’re kaiju films made by people who know how.

Today’s pen: Cross Century II
Today’s ink: Diamine Sherwood Green

p.s.  I know there’s at one reader here waiting for me to comment on a specific pen, which I long since should have done; it’s down to getting the pictures processed, which I appear to be developing some kind of hysterical blindness about.  Soon.

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The Miyazaki Principle

Posted by Dirck on 10 March, 2014

This is a long way off topic, in so much as I still have topic here, but it’s something that I need to vent about publicly.  Those who don’t care for the grinding of axes in the region of children’s entertainment might want to go and get a refreshing beverage.

My family got around to watching Turbo over the weekend, and while I generally recommend it, I have a particular problem with an element of it.  To vent properly, I’m going to be both giving away spoilers (so much as that can be done with a kids’ movie) and talking about events in the film as if the reader has already seen the thing.  Those for whom these items present a problem will probably be happier by the drink machine.

Turbo, then.  A snail who is fascinated by Indy-car racing and who, having been bitten by a radioactive street-rod gains the powers to realize his long-held dream.  We’ll overlook the point that realizing your dreams relies on acquiring super-powers; the sooner the kids have a hint that that’s how life works, the better they’ll get along in life (yes, the cynicism index is rather high today).  What bites at me is the interaction between the title character and his own idol, the multiple winner of the Indy Cup, Guy Gagné.  It bites me because the way it plays out in the film is both needlessly grim and rather clichéd.

Initially, Gagné supports the entry of Turbo into the race.  He makes much of having risen to his current fame and sponsorship-supported comfort from the place of an outsider, a little guy.  This is good.  I like this.  But the moment it happened, I knew how the thing was going to play out.  Gagné would, I saw, turn brutal on the track, and only a minor miracle would see Turbo to his dramatically-necessary triumph in the face to Gagné’s efforts to sabotage and even flatten him.

Well… the sabotage at least stayed in the box.  Otherwise, it’s a story we’ve all seen before, with slightly different relationships of worshipped and worshipper.  This is the minor objection, since we all know that there’s a limited number of stories in the world, and that number drops when the audience is under 12.

The major objection is the grimness.  That cynical noise I made above notwithstanding, I’m a big advocate of letting kids have a childhood; a time of lightness and joy, untrampled by the ugly realities life will eventually heap on the plate.  This is utopian, I know, and the prospects for a lot of kids are indeed very grim, but where the possibility of the ideal exists, why work to undo it?  I compared Turbo to the works of Hayao Miyazaki, and I saw how the same movie could easily have been made without a villain but also without losing the excitement of the competion.  A narrative thrives of contest, I agree, but it need no be a contest to the death.

So, in the film where Turbo sneaks into Gagné’s trailer and is this engaged in a rather one-sided conversation (a nod to realism or the sense kids have of not being listened to– people can’t hear the snails talk) is the first point at which change for the better could appear.  As it plays out, this scene gives us the first sense that Gagné will really play the villain, in as much as he makes some only-lightly veiled threats regarding the next day’s race and his willingness to do whatever is needed to win, a willingness he attributes to all the other racers.  In the Ghibli version of the scene I envision, the thrust is the same, but the threats are absent.  Gagné can once again dwell on the parallels between himself and the snail at similar points in their respective racing careers, and can even go on about how everyone on the track has winning as the foremost consideration.  But instead of leering and suggesting that this will certainly lead to Turbo’s demise, carrying on in a tone of peer-to-peer respect and explaining that the snail can’t expect special treatment on the track, because by going onto the track he accepts that he is accepted as an equal would lay the groundwork for a hard-fought contest but one without rancor.  They’re not trying to hurt Turbo, you see, but they expect him to see to his own safety just as they’re seeing to theirs.  He’s not a villain, he’s a Dutch uncle.

Coming from that scene, the race then plays out essentially as it does.  Turbo’s size, a disadvantage from a squishing perspective, has a balancing advantage in being able to do unlikely maneuvers.  Good lesson for the kids.  No way is made for him, but, until a certain point, no specific effort is made to do away with him.  And then we have the end of the race, in which Gagné makes specific efforts as least three times.  And that, to me, sucks.

Don’t get me wrong, I think the hero vs. villain narrative is a good one, and I like to see the hero have to struggle to overcome the villain (which is why I rather liked the season 2 and 3 finalés of Sherlock and why I cannot allow a Steven Seagal film in my house).  However, I think that inserting a villain where one isn’t needed is a silly thing to do.  You’ve proposing to have a snail compete in the Indianapolis 500; why do you need a mean man who wants to stop him?

Recasting the climax of the race, then.  Leave off the effort to mash Turbo between tire and track wall.  A contest of skill leads to the amazing, catastrophic crash just shy of the finish.  The same exhortation to Turbo by his brother still fits.  The same effort to finish by both the snail and the man are made; Turbo stripped of his powers by the accident and creeping at full standard gastropod speed, Gagné somehow managing to tow his disintegrating car through the strength of his own limbs (and tell me that doesn’t rate as a heroic effort).  The finish line inches nearer, the contest remains in the air until… let us say Gagné stumbles, falling, and the passing of his shadow startles Turbo into the race-winning tuck and roll, crossing the line just before the toppling human and the nose of his car.

And then we can have Gagné make a face, the brief anger of not winning passing through him, before he says something like, “I told you you’d have to try as hard as the rest of us.  See you next year?”  Not necessarily friends, but equals on good terms; as someone who occasionally participates in a contact sport without referees, I have a real-world basis for this sort of attitude.  The same amount of plot tension without the defeat of the chap in second place having to be a humiliation.  After all, none of the other thirty-one contestants managed to lift a car.  That shouldn’t be something he gets beaten up by a tiny hairdresser about.

Utopian.  Monday-morning quarterbacking.  Yes.  And yet, I can wish that such things might come to pass.

Thanks for letting me get that off my chest.

Today’s pen: Pilot Vanishing Point
Today’s ink: Calamo Deep Blue

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The Season of Re-Branded Paganism

Posted by Dirck on 29 October, 2013

Hallowe’en being upon us, I believe I’ll treat myself to a response to a review of a… horror, sort of, after a fashion, movie.  Suspense might be nearer the mark .  The review in question is from a different source than the previous ones, a self-declared (and justifiably so) gonzo-theorist film critic, and the review that I’m taking issue with him over is his recent offering regarding Eye of the Devil.  As with my previous excursions into this line of though, I’m going to drop spoilers galore, so if you’re a fan of creepy 1960s black-and-white film, David Niven, or both, you’re endangering the surprises by reading either this or, in fact, the review down the link.

Also as with previous excursions, I’m going to start by agreeing with my target.  The first half of Eye of the Devil is all about keeping the viewer as mystified as Deborah Kerr, the wife of French nobleman David Niven, and apart from the profoundly obscure menace provided by a couple of creepy blond twins (Sharon Tate and David Hemmings) it is, as he says, dull.  I’ve seen this film only once, which was the result of three attempts.  Actually, if you act a fan of the above-mentioned items, keep reading.  Read the review I link too.  Read plenty of reviews.  It helps immensely to know that they thing is actually going somewhere. and it’s not (just) one of these tedious artistic films in which nothing every strings together and the point is to leave the viewer as baffled as they began, because for the first half it’s hard to not assume that’s what you’re facing.

Once you’ve fought your way through that powerfully obtuse first portion, when some of the hints of what’s going on start to actually hang together into suggestive shapes, the going gets easier, and indeed well before the end you get a pretty good idea of what the problem is for Kerr and Niven, and can start trying to decide which of them has the right response to it.  Here’s the big spoiler; the domain Niven’s family holds is the seat of a cult, and part of the cult’s activities involve sacrifices to ensure bountiful harvests– the longer since a bumper crop comes in, the more serious the sacrifice, and we all know what the biggest sacrifice is, right?

I really only have one serious beef with the review, and it’s something that the title leads him into.  He keeps speaking of the cultists as Satanists.  That’s not right, and it bugs me slightly.  I use the word “cult” guardedly; cult practices are out of line with mainstream religions, but don’t pursue evil necessarily.  In Eye of the Devil, the cultists are in most of their expressions of religion Christian.  The local priest is in on the deal.  The troubling sacrifice aspects of their beliefs are not presented as a tip of the hat to The Adversary, but rather a replaying of the sacrifice which Christianity’s namesake made– he went up on the cross to improve things for everyone else, and the cult’s sacrificial object does the same, willingly, for the benefit of his entire community, and what I take from it at least is that the cult is a survival of pre-Christian practices that has infused itself into the (relatively) new religion.  This is not unlike Hallowe’en, or rather Hallowmas, in which a hard to eradicate pre-Christian notion was adopted by the church as an alternative to the difficulty of suppressing it– if people are going to get flippy about ancestral spirits creeping about once a year, let’s make sure they’re also thinking about saints!  In Eye of the Devil, it’s just a more local and rather hairier-chested version of the effect.  Another critic I enjoy suggests parallels between this film and The Wicker Man, and he’s not wrong, even though the paganism in that one is extremely neo- rather than a survival of past ages; there’s a fully-formed and plausible theology at work in both, and in both it’s not a confrontation of opposites as much as a selection of parallel paths.

Unlike a lot of actual devil-worship films (let’s try The Devil’s Rain and Rosemary’s Baby to cover a spectrum of possible examples), there’s no supernatural powers at work, at least not in any overt way.  The response to the religious efforts of the cultists is much like that one might expect from the more conventionally Christian prayer– things get better, perhaps even dramatically, but one could attribute it to a mere swing of nature’s pendulum as much as the hand of an interested deity.  The stopping of resistance to the plan is pretty much all through human agency, rather than unseen powers (edit; just remembered– there is a little unlikely hypnotism, but it happens during the befuddling front end and thus hardly counts).  What I find actually interesting about Eye of the Devil is that if you take David Niven rather than Deborah Kerr as your identification character, it’s about having the moral fibre to do something painful because you know that it’s morally required.  If we end up rooting for the cultists, it’s not because of the appeal which the villain of any piece inevitably has, but because David Niven is clearly on the path to doing something terrible in pursuit of being good and for no personal gain whatever.

Which is almost worth the struggle the first part of the film represents.

Today’s pen: Waterman Carène
Today’s ink: Herbin Poussière de Lune

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Fifty Ways (roughly)

Posted by Dirck on 13 August, 2013

In my previous excursion into responding to a film review, I expressed my deep appreciation of El Santo’s powers.  I therefore surprise myself as much as anyone when I say that he’s dead wrong in his review of Starship Troopers.

Well… that’s too sweeping a statement.  In the course of examination of Starship Troopers, he gets something wrong.  This one wrong item doesn’t have any real bearing on the general conclusions he reaches, and in that respect the only complaint I can think to make is that he’s a little to generous in giving the thing a rating of ½– this in the full knowledge of his inverted bell-curve of ratings which allows a stupendously bad film a high negative rank for the unintended entertainment value.  Zero, and the half-stars to either side of it, indicate a film which is a failure in terms of its own intentions and in terms of that failure to provide any joy to the viewer.

Back when this thing came out, or rather just before it appeared in the theatres, I watched an ad and said to myself, “Aw, damn.  This is going to suck, and I can’t not want to go see it.”  I told my wife about this crippling disability, and promised to arrange the viewing so that she could avoid being dragged along.  She was at that time some months away from the title of Wife and thus suffering her own crippling disability– Besotted Girlfriendhood.  She threatened me with terrible consequences if I thought to go to a movie without her, even one which promised to be as bad as the Jurassic Park sequel which our combined problems had landed us at not long before, and would not be reasoned out of it.

However, since she is not entirely without wisdom, she brought a book.  About half-way through, we were both reading The Haunting of Hill House and trying to ignore the terrible thing happening on the screen above us.  On the drive home, we began to formulate a list of the diverse ways in which it was a bad movie.  The list grew to include forty-three separate heads; lost now, alas, and I’m not willing to subject myself to a re-watching of it to attempt a reconstruction.  But I will cast what aspersions I’m able to recall from that single, long-ago exposure.

I should mention that I intend to quote El Santo pretty liberally throughout.  Let’s start with what was for me was the only real disturbing element:

     The general consensus on the part of its defenders is that Starship Troopers is a satire on modern American militarism of the Gulf War variety, or on the propagandistic war movies of the 1940’s, or even on the Nazis’ notorious propaganda machine. And for my part, I’m going to assume this to be true, on the grounds that the idea of a Dutch director growing up in the 40’s, only to film a ringing endorsement of fascist militarism 50 years later is too disturbing to contemplate.

Exactly my thought.  The high SS-flavouring of the officers’ uniforms certainly suggests a specific point of reference, and it almost has to be an ironic reference… but Verhoven was playing it even more deadpan than he did with Robocop‘s initial ED-209 deployment if that’s the case.  It’s so deadpan that in fact I think it’s almost a case of the director pointing a finger right at the people who were gearing up to elect George W. Bush and shouting “You guys are idiots!”  The final line in the film, if I remember correctly, is spoken of an unarmed alien surrounded by armed humans– “It’s afraid!” is greeted by a whoop of joy, as if this state of affairs guarantees inevitable human victory in a conflict which is manifestly not running very well for us.  If you joined in that whoop from your seat in the audience, I think you’re the very person Paul Verhoven is snickering at.

Which gets us to one of the more common complaints about this film, which even its defenders generally admit as a problem.  Unlike El Santo, I read the book, and re-read it not long before seeing the movie.  Heinlein was modelling the war on the “island-hopping” Pacific campaign of the Second World War, so like the US Marines his Mobile Infantry had very limited reserves.  However, those limited reserves were the orders of magnitude more destructive than the 20th century model had available, as befits a society capable of summoning the energies needed to move between star systems in conveniently short times.  The movie version of the same force has… a bunch of riflemen.  Heavy weapons?  Mechanized units?  Air support?  None of the above, and as El Santo points out these defects combine an almost psychotic unwillingness to learn any tactical lessons from previous encounters.  There is an animated series founded upon the film, aimed at kids, and it does a much better job on these points.  Once again, if Verhoven is actually using Starship Troopers as a means of rubbing its primary audience’s nose in its own stupidity, this makes sense, but it’s being done in awfully broad strokes.

This military incompetence is not limited to the level of policy.  In the book, the MI was an all-male enterprise, while in the film it’s co-ed.  I don’t myself have any brief against women filling any role in the military; as with firefighting and engineering, there are some general requirements in terms of mental and physical ability, but one’s role in procreation has little bearing on those requirements.  However, in the case of this film the inclusion of both sexes is not a means of showing how the future has overcome silly modern gender prejudices of our current era; it is rather a means of servicing the lamentable soap opera aspects of the plot.  Boys and girls in a military setting?  Shenanigans!  What makes this particularly galling is the unit commander, calling out that the enemy is inbound and all the troops need to be at their positions in five minutes, looking into the flagrante tent, smiles, nods, and says, “…ten minutes.”  Because the requirements of the service and duty to humanity must take a back seat to carnal satisfaction.  Is it any wonder that the aliens are winning?

The aliens, by the way, are something most people, including El Santo, view as a mark in the plus column:

Cool as the Arachnids are (and by the standards of CGI monsters, the bigger ones at least are fantastic), their eye-candy value is nowhere near enough to make up for the stupidity, incompetence, and tedium of Starship Troopers.

I will agree that visually they are pretty cool and a pretty high-standard of CGI for their day.  I also rate the exterior bits of the space battle (I think there was only really one) as something that one can look at with some enjoyment.  However, the way the aliens are handled also left me a little angry.  They’re a space-faring race in their own right, let’s remember, which underline their powers by obliterating Buenos Aires not with a handy solar-system asteroid but with one shipped in from their own system.  All we’re shown of their technology, though, suggests that it’s based upon genetic manipulation of their own species.  Their soldiers are a specialized fighting caste.  Their rulers are a “brain” caste.  Their response to orbiting unfriendly spacecraft are colossal bombardier beetles.  This last is where my disbelief begins to slither to the floor, because the containing the kinds of energy which launching vast globes of incandescent matter into orbit within the frame of a living creature runs too far beyond my imagination’s limits.  How much farther, then, the growing of a warp-drive, or hyperengine, or whatever you what to call your Dillingham?

Even setting that aside, the aliens’ tactics are not actually any smarter than the humans’, in that the central command appears to be “crush them under mountains of our dead”.  Granted that this is an attitude honeybees will comprehend, but this, I point out once again, an advanced society.  It takes resources to grow billions of soldiers to the point that you can throw them away like human armies use bullets.  You must really want a barren, protein-free moon a lot to throw away that much of your race’s biomass to hang onto it.  Or… be really stupid.

Touching upon the acting, I bow again to El Santo:

{T}he incompetent young actors who comprise the bulk of the cast are incapable of anything but the cardboard earnestness they display here.

Yup.  For some subjective reason, I find Denise Richards authentically objectionable rather than merely uselessly cardboardish, almost as if she’s a bad actor with malice aforethought rather than a bad actor through common negligence.  This only serves to elevate her slightly above the bunch.

And at last, I come to the point at which El Santo is entirely astray in his review.  I will let him damn himself out of his own keyboard:

Major characters drop one by one (including, frustratingly enough, Rico’s commanding lieutenant, who is played by Michael Ironside of Scanners, the only decent actor in this movie), and Rico is consistently promoted to take their places, until finally defeat becomes so obviously unavoidable that the fleet airlifts the soldiers off the planet.

I give Ironside mad props (as the kids once said) for delivering that “…ten minutes” line without appearing to be dying inside, but he was not alone.  Clancy Brown suffered through rather more of this mess, and aquitted himself at least as well.  I was also going to defend Neil Patrick Harris, but casting my mind back, I think he allowed himself to drift down to the level of the leads; understandable, but it leaves him culpable.

It’s… good heavens, sixteen years since I saw this thing.  I remain angry at it.  I guess Verhoven can claim to have made an impression.  There’s one last thing to address, the departure of the film from the book.  As I mention, I had read Starship Troopers prior to seeing it, and I agree that it does step away from Heinlein’s parable about the underlying sacrifices required of a thinking citizenry.  I don’t know that this is a reason to abuse the film; I can see and even agree with some of the points Heinlein makes while finding the whole of the philosophy rather unappealing, but I don’t think a film based on the book would necessarily have to engage that same philosophy.  It could have been a rollicking space opera rather than a turgid soap opera.  It could have been an examination of the way the bonds of fellowship are refined by the forge of conflict, as more conventional war movies have previously done but in a different setting.  Not clinging to the source material is a tradition in the making of films into books, and it’s just fine if the film is a good film.   Which this is most emphatically not.

Today’s pen: Waterman Thorobred
Today’s ink: Diamine Syrah

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Earth vs Martians vs Martians vs Devlerlich

Posted by Dirck on 17 June, 2013

To start what is apt to become a long series of quasi-reviews of films and partial responses to film critics, I’m starting with far too much to really attempt all in one go.  The critic I’ll be leaning on today is El Santo, a self-confessed fan of genre and exploitation film and a remarkable scholar of same; there are films I have no interest in watching that I’d still sort of like to see, thanks to his reviews.  He is, in fact, just about my favourite film critic.

Film favourites also appear here, although we may play a few bars of the old Sesame Street song and sing quietly, “One of these things is not like the others.”  Because speaking of one is difficult without speaking about the others, the unchewable lump I’m gnawing on today is composed of War of the Worlds, Mars Attacks, and Independence Day, and those links will take you to El Santo’s elegant reviews of each if you’re unfamiliar with them.

War of the Worlds, if you’re unwilling to click that link, is the 1953 original film version, not any of the differently-terrible ones which have appeared since the most recent turn of the century.  I’ve seen two of them, and I wish the period one had been better in some way (acted, written, funded) because that’s the one I wish Spielberg had made.  The one he was attached to very nearly overcomes the presence of Tom Cruise (pause for a shudder), as during the whole flight from the Martians his portrayal of a panicky, worried Joe Lunchbucket dad who is monumentally out of his depth is believable to the point that one almost forgets the terrible pre-Martian segment where he’s established as a Joe Lunchbucket dad (with amazing teeth).  Once the flight ends, and your warning for this is the appearance of Tim Robbins, it turns into a stupid action movie, with a Joe Lunchbucket dad who hasn’t eaten properly or slept in a couple of days performing heroics with hand grenades, pointing out the unnoticed but obvious state of the attackers, and generally getting a spotlight shone upon him.

The 1953 film is, in common with the Cruise object, rewritten for a contemporary setting.  This is, as El Santo points out, fair enough since the original story was also contemporary to its day.  The whole point of the ending is that humanity’s technology is orders of magnitude short of the challenge posed by the invaders, and as much as I wish for a good period movie version I accept that the average audience won’t be as moved by the sight of lancers, horse artillery and ironclads being swept aside as they will by the current cutting edge military technology being shambolized.  Since 1953’s cutting edge included the unspeakably unstable YB-49 Flying Wing I’m just as pleased because there’s a ton of stock footage of the thing in action.  The updating also brings in atomic power, and that allows for my favourite unintentionally funny part of the film, in which our hero Dr. Clayton Forrester hauls out a Gieger counter to examine the “meteor”; the blocking of the scene and the relative heights of Gene Barry and Ann Robinson make it look like he’s got a very accurate bra-detector.

Mars Attacks and Independence Day are both, in essence, remakes of War of the Worlds.  The former is a much looser interpretation but much more open about its lineage to those who know what to look for– the Martians’ ray-guns produce two different colours of blast and make a very specific noise.  El Santo points out that the main reason for the success (artistically) of Mars Attacks is that the director both understood and loved the old films upon which it was based, of which War of the Worlds is merely the foremost.  I’m not a wall-to-wall Tim Burton fan, but I agree whole-heartedly with El Santo that he nailed the required tone throughout Mars Attacks.  There are plenty of nods to both the original bubble-gum card source, the most startling of which is the initial scene, and to science fiction films of most ages; I’m reminded as I write this that The Andromeda Strain was technically an alien invasion story.  While the most obvious touchstone for the saucers is the vessels run up by Ray Harryhausen for Earth vs. The Flying Saucers, there is also a little tip of the hat from Burton to the studio that was backing him– when they deploy their landing gear, the subconscious makes an effort to apply a set of enormous black canvas high-top sneakers to them.

Independence Day on the other hand, while sticking a little closer to the storyline of War of the Worlds, strays from it in exactly the wrong ways.  Let me tinker a synopsis that will fit both films (beware the dread spoiler): aliens appear, begin to destroy things shortly thereafter, prove human military technology is helpless against them, and resist nuclear bombardment; some captured technology proves to be of limited value in discovering a means of defeating the invaders, but an infection turns the tide at the last moment.  Sounds about right?  It was the near shot-for-shot similarity of the nuclear attack in Independence Day that made me realize what I was looking at, and once the realization was there, I was even sadder about watching the damn thing.

El Santo castigates it properly for having a very small percentage of the running time given over to the actual blowing up of stuff, but there are some pretty long stretches of square-dancing, running to and fro, and slightly unlikely science chatter in War of the Worlds too.  I suspect if one examined in percent terms the alien on-screen time of the two films, Independence Day wouldn’t lag that far behind… but it’s a much longer film, so the relative similarity is overtaken by the absolute yawning immensity of Independence Day‘s empty bits.

For all the bad science and protracted dullness Independence Day offers, though, I think the concluding deus ex machina is the stake in its heart.  I join not only El Santo but legions of like-minded SF buffs in deriding the whole computer virus solution to the problem the aliens present, demanding as it does the deeply unlikely combination of humans piloting an alien vessel (and the aliens seem to have a lot of prehensile somethings when Will Smith punches one out), alien operating systems accepting any code from an earth computer, alien ATC not realizing they’re admitting a Trojan horse, and the crew of said horse getting out alive, but I add an extra note to that polyphony of raspberry.  Independence Day‘s greatest sin is to entirely reverse the conclusion of War of the Worlds— Wells and his sensible followers showed the helplessness of human ingenuity in the face of such a foe, but Independence Day proclaims that human ingenuity is quite sufficient to defeat a force which can cross interstellar gulfs, built artificial objects the size of moderate moons, decline the demands of gravity, generate forcefields which are impenetrable in one direction, and generally do feats of engineering we’re all but forced to call magic.  Since all of the preceding had been, as in the other two films, an excellent case against human ingenuity’s chances, it’s eventual triumph is less a come-from-behind win than a poke in the audience’s eye.  “You believed all that stuff we were saying? Chumps!”

Looking at box office success, we find that the little green gremlin which afflicts so many real-world efforts to visit Mars may also have a brief in the sabotaging of films about the red planet.  War of the Worlds is one of three films of the 1950s which El Santo credits with slamming the door on big budget sci-fi films until Stanley Kubrick pried it open at the end of the ’60s, and Mars Attacks grossed more than it cost but not the multiples of its cost that Hollywood seems to think is required to count as a success.  I wasn’t around to see how War of the Worlds was received in the theatres, but I did get to Mars Attacks in its first run and of the three dozen people in the showing my wife and I attended, only ten of us seemed to get the jokes; this does nothing to encourage my view of humanity as a whole.  I could say the same about the relative success of Independence Day at the box office, since it did make back several times its cost, but I seem to recall that it did most of its business in the first week or two, before disappointed word of mouth had a chance to circulate.  Alas, unlike War of the Worlds’s effect on A-list sci-fi in the 1950s, there is no sign of Independence Day having done any harm to the notion of gigantic brainless blockbusters.

Creepy, inhumanly shaped, and it made horrid noises too!.

Creepy, inhumanly shaped, and it made horrid noises too!.

How the hell did they get Edith Head to stand still for this picture?

How the hell did they get Edith Head to stand still for this picture?

To wrap up, I want to take issue with El Santo himself, who says “the creature costumes {in War of the Worlds} are not nearly as good as the model war machines or the optical effects associated with them….”  I beg your pardon, sir!  While the behind-the-scenes interviews on the DVD suggest that the Martians had a very limited ability to hold together under the influences found on a film set, it was still a profoundly alien piece of work.  We’ve done better since, of course, but for the time, I think the creature stands up to what scrutiny the film provides every bit as well at the machines.  After all, they could have gone a much different route….

Today’s pen: Waterman Executive
Today’s ink: Rohrer & Klingner Verdigris
Pens spotted in the films: Nothing I could readily identify, although I want to have another look at the lab scene in War of the Worlds when Forrester brings in the captured technology.

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The “S” is for Scandal

Posted by Dirck on 4 June, 2013

A bit of a diversion today from the usual material (or is it?  I’ll return to the question), as I’ve read a rather interesting piece about the upcoming Superman film, and it’s gotten me thinking about the last one.  That piece, by the way, looks at previous films as well, with an eye to working out why so few of them are well received or even marginally popular, and it uses the last one, Superman Returns, as an example of a failure.  I’d managed to not see that one until a couple of months ago, and while I agree with some of the reasoning the author I link to uses, I think that on the whole it’s not a terrible movie.

On the whole.  There is, however, a problem with it which nagged at me throughout, and which renders me unable to really suggest to others that they should have a look at it.  I’m going to go into that in a few lines, but before I get there I will warn that if you are, as I recently was, one who is inclined to see Superman Returns but hasn’t yet, I am going to give some stuff away.  Read on if you dare!

Now, on to the problem.  It is not Superman himself.  While I agree with the item I read earlier about the general want of sympathy Brandon Routh generates, that’s not really wrong; Superman has ever been a bit of a big blue plank.  If he had a better sense of humour, he’d have far less trouble with Mr. Mxyptlk (which I doubt I’ve spelled properly).  I was, in fact, struck by how very like Christopher Reeve this Routh fellow ran in his portrayal.

Nor do I have any trouble with the villain of the piece.  Kevin Spacey is almost always a good laugh, and Lex Luthor is one of the more satisfying Superman villains in the versions of him where he’s not just trying to get back for Superboy having made him accidentally bald.  However smart he is, Luthor is just a guy, and he’s working against an alien that can not only lift small continents and move at relativistic speeds but is also clever in proportion.  The trick to making him a satisfying villain is having him do something so darkly evil that this imbalance doesn’t leave us rooting for him and so effectively evil that Superman actually has to work hard to deal with him.  Supeman Returns has a sufficiency in this direction, more or less.

At the risk of drawing accusations of sexism, my problem with this film lies with Lois Lane.  The problem is not, I hasten to say, is not with the character… and while I was about to say “it’s the actress,” that’s not altogether right.  It’s the combination of character and actress that does it, not unlike mixing up bleach and ammonia.  In general terms, I don’t have any brief against Kate Bosworth nor the reporter she plays.  However…  when the film was made, she was 23 and very nearly that old to look at.  Lois Lane is a Pulitzer-prize winning, highly respected reporter of long and resplendent career with a staggering smoking habit, and I’m not drawing that from the comics but from things mentioned in the film itself.

These are not impossible to reconcile, but the hook from which disbelief is suspended starts to groan under the weight of it.  Add to this the fact that the Pulitzer article was about Superman’s departure from Earth five years earlier (thus the title), putting her at if not under 20 when the thing was written, and thus several years younger than the current youngest-ever Pulitzer recipient.  Oh, also, she’s a working mom.

…and that’s a bigger problem, because it comes clear in the course of the film that the father of her child is in fact the Last Son of Krypton.  Leaving aside the essential impossibility of this sort of coupling bearing fruit (Larry Niven took that one to bits a long time ago, and he’s not wrong in his conclusions), there’s a small matter of morality.  Superman’s essential goodness is the foundation of the character; whatever he’s doing, unless he’s been given a lump of red kryptonite or befuddled by enchantment, is Right and Good.  Even allowing for rumours one hears about farm-ways, Right and Good may not entirely be served by having unprotected sex with someone who is at most eighteen (23-5=18, eh?) and who is also possibly a little star-struck at having a chance to bed an effective demigod.  Even less are they served by buggering off out of the solar system after knocking her up– and if he can hear and differentiate from background noise an armed robbery happening hundreds of miles away, his super-senses should pick up on the popping of cell-division and the changes in personal scent the hormone adjustments of pregnancy will bring on, so his surprise at the development rings a little hollow.

The author of the article that got me going on this has high hopes for the new film, which apparently reboots the whole cinematic Superman enterprise.  His hope lies in the nature of the villain, who can actually give Superman a run for his money.  I agree, and add to that– Amy Adams, who is playing Lois Lane, is 38.  That’s old enough to have a believable back-story

Now, having gotten all that out, I have a thing to moot; I begin, after somewhat more than four years of this nonsense, to run out of purely pen-related topics, but I do really like holding forth.  I’ve been contemplating doing something like this for a while, although more in the line of responding to some of my favourite film reviewers than doing actual reviews myself.  I very nearly asked, “What to folks think about that?” but the last time I did something like that I had a pen fall apart on me, so this is more in the line of an announcement/warning.  Pen material will be the core of the experience here, but there will be a somewhat higher percentage of other stuff.  And that’s the way it is.

Today’s pen: Sheaffer Balance Sovereign
Today’s ink: Herbin Vert Empire

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