Tuesday, May 27, 2008


I can't speak for everyone, because I am, unfortunately, not able to read minds, but I'm going to assume that most people are like myself in that we all think in literal terms. I mean, we all think in words, sentences and paragraphs. I do this all the time, I'll think of something as if I'm composing a letter. It actually bothers me sometimes, because I'll actually get caught on a word and stumble around trying to complete the thought even though the thought was already fully formed in my head. I'm only assuming that this is how most of us view the world and compose our thoughts; with language.

Something that jumped into my mind for some unknown reason is; How did Helen Keller think? I don't mean to imply that Helen Keller could not think, or was mentally inferior to others(quite the opposite in fact), but I cannot at all imagine how her brain must have worked. To have to piece the world together without a picture to go with it or a language to express it in. Of course, eventually sign language came into it, but that's still a stumbling block for me. She wouldn't have had a visual image to think with, or words to compose. I can't conceptualize how she must have seen the world and how her thought process must have worked. She wouldn't have had a visual image to think with, or words to compose.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Spout #10: Summer Palace

Writer/Director Lou Ye's Summer Palace takes place over about 15 years, beginning in the late eighties and ending up in 2003. The movie begins as Yu Hong(a charismatically detached Hao Lei, mental note to look for her in other films) discovers she's been accepted to the Beijing University. Shortly afterward she has spontaneous, furtive sex with her boyfriend in a field. The way they move quickly away from one another, and the suspicious, embarrassed looks they give each other after the act implies that this is their first time. It also gives us some emotional hook to grab onto, since her boyfriend, Xao Jun(played by Cui Jin) will soon be absent until past the halfway point. Much has been made of the sex in this movie, primarily because it's so frequent and, some say, graphic. I didn't find this film to be anywhere near as graphic as most Hollywood sex scenes, with their fetishistic lighting and camera movements.

In college, Yu Hong is a solitary loner, smoking in the hallway because her dorm room is too crowded, and not talking to anyone until she meets Li Ti. Through her, Yu Hong meets Zhou Wei and the two carry on a passionate affair. Their relationship could be viewed as idyllic for awhile, but not to anyone paying attention. Yu Hong becomes unbalanced and jealous in the relationship, despite always seeming distant and noncommittal. Her private diary, which is narrated to us, reveals hidden depths, but she never allows them to show through until they burst forth in a destructive torrent.

The first half of this film, set in the late 80's, culminates with the Tienanmen Square protests, and while this seems like a dramatic backdrop, it's hardly ever utilized. We, the audience, get a few glimpses, and a pretty emotional montage of news clips(which would never have been shown in mainland China), but there's no context. Although the main characters are involved in the protest, we never see them becoming involved in anything. It appears they just went as a lark, not on behalf of some deep seated beliefs. At first I assumed I was merely missing out because, as an American who was only 11 at the time, I was not very familiar with the events surrounding the Tienanmen Protests. I thought that the backdrop would probably be much more self explanatory to a Chinese audience, but of course that would be incorrect. Details of the protests remain under strict censorship, and most people in China are unaware of what happened. That most iconic image, the lone man standing in front of a tank, was unidentifiable to a group of Chinese college students confronted with the photo on a recent episode of Frontline. In fact, Summer Palace was banned in Mainland China, primarily due to the references to the protests, and the director has been banned from film making for the next 5 years.

The second half of the film takes frequent leaps forwards in time as Yu Hong has a string of relationships and Zhou Wei moves with Li Ti and her boyfriend to Germany. During this period Zhou Wei and Li Ti carry on an occasional affair, and Yu Hong has an abortion in one of the most emotionally powerful scenes of it's kind I've ever witnessed. Yu Hong calls college the most confusing time of her life, but she's obviously trying to regain something in her sexual relationships, which are emotional and passionate, but always, she knows, temporary. She is of course pining for Zhou Wei. Although she consents to a marriage proposal from a kind man who genuinely loves her, we get the idea that she's only doing this as an attempt to stop her own personal downward spiral before it becomes truly destructive.

As the movie progresses in time, Zhou Wei and Yu Hong slowly begin to gravitate towards each others lives. Eventually they meet, and the finale of the film is quietly devastating in it's own right, but slightly marred by a frankly needless series of title cards that spell out what happens to the characters just after the movie ends.

Summer Palace is a film I'm actually a little in awe of, and feel some weird, half formed affection for, even if I don't actually like it in the technical sense. For one, as has been noted in just about every review, the movie is a bit long and meanders a bit too much, and yet it also feels too brief at times. Particularly the first half, which frustratingly avoids placing anything in any concrete context. And yet that, in retrospect, gives the film it's own strange power. It's kinda heartbreaking to think that writer/director Lou Ye is from the generation that protested so vehemently and fought to bring democracy to China's government, only to see their every effort wiped from the public conscience. It's not too hard to imagine this movie as his own response to seeing the work of so many quietly forgotten by his own countrymen.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Fun With Scammers Pt. 1

A few months back I started getting phone calls, from a variety of numbers and names(turns out Automotive Warranty Service is the actual name), all out of state, that informed me there was a problem with my car's factory warranty. Well, this was puzzling, because at the time of the first call I did not have a car in my name, and I've never bought a car from a dealership(in fact, all the cars I've owned have been decades old). So naturally I just hung up. I got the same call a week later, and a few days after that, and so on, until finally I listened to the entire message. I could press 1 to talk to an operator, or I could press 2 to be put on their 'do not call' list. I pressed 2, which, it turns out, was a big mistake. Instead of getting a call every week or so, I began getting a call every day. Sometimes more than once a day. This has continued now for the past few weeks, and so eventually I pressed 1 to talk to an operator.

During my first talk, I was frustrated, and a little bit angry in the way I was speaking. I wasn't rude, or cursing at the operator, but I was noticeably agitated, so I could halfway excuse the person for hanging up on me. Not so the next day, when I calmly asked the person why I was getting calls when I don't own a car. She hung up on me too.

It's obvious this is a scam. I knew that from the time I got the first call. Anyone interested can follow this link to find a description of the scam and some really outrageous stories from people who unfortunately succumbed to the salespeople(including alleged retaliation for making a complaint with the BBB). But that's not the point of this post. From the moment I spoke to my first operator I knew complaining about this business would do no good. As soon as the bureaucracy catches up and begins to go after these people, they'll have changed their numbers and mailing addresses several times over. Phone/Internet/Mail scams are here to stay, it's up to us to be the ones to say no. So I've decided to have some fun.

I got two calls today. The first, asking to speak to a supervisor, I was sent to some bogus voice mail maze. The second surprised me, and I didn't have much prep time, but here's how it went down.

I was put on hold after asking to speak to an operator, and I got to hear the first two lines of Willie Nelson's On The Road Again several times before Mike picked up and asked for the make, model and serial number of my car. I, in as good natured a manner as I could, came back with 'Wow, I was on hold for awhile. Business must be good.'

There was a pause, and then 'yeah, we're doing pretty well.' It should be noted that during my previous dealings there was no pause, they quickly hung up on me or transferred me. I can only imagine that the pause came because politeness and joviality went against their programming. Like those robots in old Sci-Fi movies whose heads would explode when faced with some simple illogical riddle.

Still keeping the same jovial,purely-making-idle-chatter tone; 'ah, good. Stealing loads of retirement checks, then?'

Another pause; 'Sir? I don't think I understand you.'

'Well, how about you transfer me to a supervisor. Maybe he will.'

Another pause; 'What did you say? I couldn't understand you.'

'Well, I'll speak slowly; CAN. I. TALK. TO. A. SUPERVISOR?'

No pause this time, but a shitload of sarcasm; 'yeah, I understood that. Hold on.'

A click, some muzak, and then a dial tone. He'd transferred me, and then hung up on me.

It wasn't entirely clever, but I had no prep time. It did get my frustration out, and waste a few moments of their time, which kept them from earning anything. Tomorrow I hope to be better prepared, and I'm going to be keeping a log of my transactions. I'm going to see how long I can keep them on the line until they hang up in frustration.

So, anyone have any ideas? I know most of my friends are much better at screwing with telemarketers than I am(particularly Eric, who could go on for hours), but if anyone has any ideas I should use, I'd be much obliged. Check back tomorrow for more.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Nerd Alert!

With Final Crisis just around the corner, written by one of my faves Grant Morrison(even if I have been a little let down with his Batman run), and Geoff Johns doing a pretty spectacular job of reigning in the often convoluted and ungainly DC continuity, I'm finding it a pretty good time to be a DC fan. Especially with the awesome conclusion to The Last Son of Krypton, written by Johns and his former boss, Richard Donner. The story started almost 2 years ago, and the last we've seen of it were the words 'to be concluded in Action Comics Annual #11.' That was 13 issues ago, and the wait has been pretty frustrating. But with this issue, with it's grand cinematic scope(a cliche when talking about comics these days, I know), and incredible Kubert art, almost made the wait worthwhile. I only say 'almost' because a year is too long to ignore such a momentous series of events within the Superman mythos. But wait, there's some things here that don't add up.

The story started way back when, with the arrival of an alien ship containing a young boy who exhibits the exact same power set as Superman, and who speaks Kryptonian. Upset with the governments attempts to isolate and study the child, Superman kidnaps him, and has Batman draw up a paper trail that turns the new Kryptonian into Christopher Kent, a cousin of Clark. Lois and Clark adopt the kid, and all seems fine for about five minutes until Zod, Ursa and Non(of Superman II fame) show up, and it's revealed that Christopher Kent is actually Lor-Zod, General Zod's child with Ursa from their time in the Phantom Zone. Zod and an army of Kryptonian criminals(also from the Phantom Zone), banish Superman to said Phantom Zone, and enslave the Justice League, setting up their own kingdom in Metropolis. It's no spoiler to say the Supes escapes, and seeks Lex Luthor to help him use his expertise to take down some Kryptonians. Cue dramatic music and intriguing 'to be continued.' Flash forward about a year, and it seems that the story is now wrapped up. But wait, what about that year in between?

And here's the problem. For that year, the rest of DC continuity was moving forward, with no mention of the Kryptonian invasion of Earth, and Superman figured prominently in that continuity. Meaning that he was obviously not trapped in the Phantom Zone for all that time. It would make sense to assume that those stories take place after the events of The Last Son of Krypton, and yet it's clear from the final issue that this isn't the case. (SPOILER ALERT) For at the end of the storyline, young Christopher Kent sacrifices himself in order to trap the Kryptonian criminals back in the Phantom Zone, and he along with them.

And now we have a years worth of story lines involving Christopher Kent, adopted son of Lois and Clark. We get to see him learning how to use his powers, moving into a new super-swank apartment with his family, and even meeting and hanging out with Robin(something the last issue paradoxically mentions). What happens to all of these stories now? Did they happen? If so, when? The Last Son of Krypton storyline took place in such a short time frame that there's no room in there for the other adventures to have happened. Do they get retconned out of existence? If so, how do you account for the several references to those adventures that are littered throughout this latest issue.

It's things like this that turn people off of comics, in particular DC. While DC isn't any worse than Marvel at these things, Marvel at least doesn't tie themselves into knots quite so often. DC almost requires a PhD in comic book history to understand everything in their books, and glaring errors like this just confuse and frustrate the fans.

The shame here is that Geoff Johns and Richard Donner have had a pretty splendid run for awhile, and this Last Son Of Krypton storyline had some pretty awesome beats to it(Lex's Superman Revenge Squad, with a trained Bizarro, an upgraded Metallo and Parasite being a highpoint). Johns' encyclopedic Superman knowledge, with Donner's cinematic take on the character, made for some pretty awesome reads. If it weren't for the delays in the title, everything would have been fine.

Sunday, May 04, 2008

Where They Play The Night Music

Several years ago, in my early twenties, following a seeming meltdown of my entire life(social, family and work), I fled the country, hoping what most people in my situation hope; that a change in scenery will bring about a more substantive change. I can't say whether or not that worked, but I did have a blast in London for a few months, and it did leave me with quite a few stories. I was only there for a few months, but I still like to think I 'lived' there, as opposed to 'vacationed' there. I say this because I did almost nothing that most tourists do. Sure, I went to some museums, wandered around and went to a few spots like Buckingham Palace or the Tower of London, but the majority of the time was just spent 'living'; socializing with some new friends and wandering around. Meeting new people and seeing new things. Most of my time was spent in a very crowded house in Harlesden Gardens on the outskirts of London proper, on a street that was just this side of 'ghetto'. I saw both my first full size, free range cockroach, and my first junkie injecting Heroin in Harlesden Gardens. Both in the same phone booth.

I went to clubs a lot in London. Well, not really a lot, but when you compare to my pre(and post) London average of never, I was a veritable club kid. OK, still not really. But I did go out fairly frequently with my flatmates. Hell, I even danced, which anyone who knows me will attest to being something I never do. It was part of that whole 'substantial change' thing I was speaking of.

Around 8 or 9 at night I would head to Notting Hill where my friend Asa(a tall, striking Swedish woman) worked at a Cafe Nero. After stopping off for the occasional bottle of Vodka and Orange Juice to avoid the outrageously priced club prices, we'd head to Trash via the Underground. Clubs in London are a lot different than the clubs I've seen in America. Basically each individual club was only open one day a week, with a different theme(and name) taking over the place each day. The club I liked the most was Trash, which played the wildest mix of music you could imagine, while leaning heavily on jangly Brit-pop. In between Morrissey and Pulp you would hear American tunes like Sweet Home Alabama. There was a joyous, communal feeling on the dance floor that I've never felt any of the times I've been dragged to a club here in America.

The doors would shut at 4 in the morning, and surprisingly at that time of night EVERYTHING in London is closed. I had imagined that London(in particular SoHo) would be bustling with activity and neon lights at night, but in fact the streets are quite empty. It's very eerie being on those well-lit streets, surrounded by immense buildings, with nary a sign of life to be found. Aside from the lights, of course. Asa and I would wait for one of the hourly double-decker buses, and make our way back to the house we shared with a dozen others, and life would be good. But before that, as the club shut down, they would play the traditional final song of the night; Dancing Queen by ABBA.

It may sound silly, but damned if that song doesn't now hold a special place in my heart. And perhaps that song was chosen for some ironic reason, something that people were really kinda laughing about. But I don't give a damn. At the end of the night, as soon as I heard that song start up, my immediate and continuing response was 'ABBA is the best band in the history of EVER!'