Saturday, March 31, 2012

Muppets in Space (Movie Review)

Muppets in Space (1999) [D: Tim Hill. The Muppet crew and others] The last Muppet movie, done by the numbers, but die-hard Muppet fans will enjoy it. But even they will likely not want to watch it twice.
     Turns out Gonzo is an alien. He receives strange messages from Space, which indicate that his people are searching for him. Eventually they land (they’re a bland rock band, if you can imagine such a thing), but Gonzo decides to stay with his friends on Earth. There’s a deranged security officer who’s convinced that an invasion of earth is imminent. He kidnaps Gonzo, Kermit and friends get him out, in the end Gonzo’s people invite the security man to travel the Universe with them. So that’s all right.
     The movie’s an attempt to recapture the magic of the show, with every major Muppet appearing, but the energy of the show and of earlier movies is lacking. Correction: the zaniness is missing. The movie is too slow: the writers didn’t have enough ideas to fill the 88 minutes at the speed that engages delighted suspension of disbelief, and so every scene is a few seconds too long. Besides, we’ve seen it all before, in other movies. Riffing on movie tropes and cliches is of course what the Muppet Show was about. Pity that the makers of this movie weren’t quite up the usual standards. **

Friday, March 30, 2012

Flatterland (Book Review)

Ian Stewart Flatterland (2001) Ian Stewart is one of my heroes. He can make complex ideas simple enough that anyone with high school math should be able to understand them. He’s also something of a polymath: he ranges outside mathematics into biology and cosmology. See
for more, including a bibliography.
Flatterland book is a sequel of Abbott’s Flatland, a classic that has never been out of print.  See
     The book ranges far beyond geometry, however, leading up to the question “What shape is our universe?” Stewart brings Victoria Line (and us) to the answer step by step, with the guidance of the Space Hopper, who is able to take Vikki outside space. The mathematician’s need to avoid fuzzy thinking is demonstrated, which makes this an excellent book for anyone who wants to get past the notion that arithmetic is all there is to math. But what makes the book charming is Vikki’s character (she’s smart and courageous), and Stewart’s penchant for puns. There are frequent allusions and pastiches of the Alice books, too.
     I’m not sure how a mathematical naif would read this book. I find it difficult to say how much my prior knowledge of most of the concepts in this book helped me to follow the story. It certainly helped to get most of the jokes. However, I’ll recommend this book anyway. If you don’t get it the first time, read it again. The chapters are short, the illustrations not only conceptually accurate but often amusing. This is a book that will appeal to people who like to take their learning in small doses. ***

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Low-Flying Aircraft (Book Review)

John Ballard Low-Flying Aircraft (1976) Ballard is probably best known for The Empire of the Sun, made into a movie by Spielberg in 1987, and for Crash, filmed by David Cronenberg (1996). This collection of SF stories consists of his usual near-future, post-collapse settings, featuring protagonists who are oddly unable to make the necessary crucial decisions in their lives. They are examples of  “New Wave science fiction”, or so the Wikipedia article on Ballard says. Initially interesting because of their studied weirdness, they quickly become boring. Ballard too often imitates himself.
     There’s no question that Ballard has earned a reputation as an important writer, but in my opinion he was merely lucky enough to express a kind of spiritual panic that at the time was widespread in Western culture. He claimed influences from surrealist painting, and proposed collage-like structures for fiction. Both surrealist content and non-linear narrative have become common-place since he discussed these ideas. For Ballard to survive, he has to be more than one of the pioneers. I don’t think he has much more than pioneering experiments to recommend him. His style is flat and often boring, his characters not so much enigmatic as empty. Of course, all that may be deliberate.
     The title story tells of a couple awaiting the birth of their child in a crumbling, abandoned resort town whose only other occupants are a doctor and his nearly-blind companion. If the child is a blind mutant like the previous ones, it will be killed. Every day, the doctor flies into the mountains spraying phosphorescent paint about, to guide mutant creatures which are blind to most of visible colours, but which can see the ultraviolet light reflected and emitted by the paint. The doctor claims the blind mutant children being born to the remaining fertile women are humankind’s successors: it seems normal children are simply not being born, yet women become pregnant very easily. The protagonist disagrees with the doctor’s conclusions, yet allows him to take the baby away to where it will be cared for, while he tells his wife it was correctly disposed of.
     The tone and ambience of these stories is curiously stifled. Although presumably momentous events have happened and will continue to happen (the destruction or disappearance of humankind is not to be taken lightly, after all), the feeling is that nothing happens, that action is frozen, or so constrained that no one can make decisions. I can see why readers of a certain kind, or at a certain stage in their spiritual development, would be attracted to such fiction, and praise it as New Wave, or whatever, but in me it caused an almost paralyzing ennui. I finished only about half of the stories, so little did they engage my sympathies, summon my empathy, or arouse my desire to find out what would happen next. Many of them had the feel of experiments, trials, attempts to make something of the kernel image or idea with which the creation of every story begins. They felt like the kinds of exercises students in creative writing classes produce. They will no doubt interest a crop of PhD students some time in the future. *

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Three Minute Fiction for NPR

3-minute fiction contest, round 8, NPR
Wolf Kirchmeir, 11 to 13 March 2012
The contest required starting with the given first sentence, and writing 600 words or less. Unfortunately, only legal residents of the US are eligible to compete. The song was not planned. I’ve been working on it for some time, and was surprised and pleased at how easily it came as part of this story. The story came via the usual process: start the work, let it mull for a couple of days, try again. Repeat as needed. Then it comes easily, the subconscious writer has been at work. It did a lot more than develop the original idea. The 600-word limit forced pruning, hence the occasionally telegraphic syntax. The comma error in the given sentence is not mine. Link to NPR contest page

     She closed the book, placed it on the table, and finally, decided to walk through the door. He half rose from the chair. Turning, she gazed at him with cool eyes, closed the door gently behind her. He sat down, touched the book, opened it. “To Genevieve, Love, John” in his florid handwriting.
     He watched her walk to her car. The sun lit up the street like a movie set, bright colours glowing. He imagined he heard a song half-remembered: She’s leaving home, bye, bye. The music drifted through his memory of their last conversation. “There’s frozen meals downstairs,” she said. “The package tells you how to cook it in the microwave.” He stood in the door, holding the book, his first gift to her. “Do you want this?” he asked. She glanced at the bag on the chair beside her. “I don’t think I have room for it,” she said. He put the book down in front of her. “Read it,” he said.
     He watched as she opened the book, glanced at the inscription, leafed through it, and stopped to read. “Come live with me and be my love,” she read, her voice clear and neutral, “and we will all the pleasures prove.” Paused. “Not much pleasure lately”, she said.


     She closed the book, placed it on the table, and finally, decided to walk through the door. I should have a flashback here, she thought. To the days when reading meant something to me. Though it never did, really. Mean something. I read that book because John gave it to me. It mattered to him. Seemed to matter to him.
     She turned and gazed at him. He gave me that book to show he cared, she thought. The book didn’t mean anything to him, the poems meant nothing. It was bait. They were love poems, he was playing a part. The bait worked, his desire for me trapped me. Trapped us both. That’s what he wanted.
     She walked to the car. She knew he watched her. The colours of the gardens were clear and luminous, the houses looked like paper cutouts. She got in the car and drove away. Come live with me and be my love. Words, words, words. Tricks to get you into bed. And we will all the pleasures prove. Not much pleasure lately, she thought.


     She closed the book, placed it on the table, and finally, decided to walk through the door. The butterfly on the rose bush greeted her ecstatically: “I’ve been waiting for you”. She smiled, held out her finger. “Hello Fred”, she said. Fred settled on her finger and preened in the sun, his wings iridescent blue and purple. “Let’s make a song, alternating lines. When we’re done, we’ll sing it. I’ll start.”

We’ve been together 50 years
Through many a calm and storm.
We’ve shivered in the rain and snow
But true love has kept us warm.

Now sun and wind have brought us here
To gardens of delight and joy,
We’ll kiss and dance till night comes down,
Till we’re again a girl and boy.

Till we’re again the girl and boy
That met so long ago,
Till we’re again the boy and girl
That learned true love is slow.

True love is slow, it outlives time,
It bears all kinds of weather,
Now, after fifty years of love,
We still want to be together.

“That’s good”, said Genevieve. Fred’s wings opened and closed slowly. She leaned down to let them brush against her lips. “Come live with me”, she murmured, “and be my love.”

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Our Town (Review)

Our Town (Thornton Wilder, 1938) Presented by Theatre SMC (Sault Ste Marie) D: J Lauzon & L Durat. With Vernon Bailey, Bridget Murphy, Alexandra McCauley, Andrew Lorimer and others.
     We went to see this play at the Quonta competition in Elliot Lake. It was the only one Marie wanted to see. It was well done, as far as I could tell a faithful revival of Wilder’s original vision (I saw the play many years ago in Edmonton.) The story, set in Grover’s Corners,  is well known: Emily, the central character, is shown growing up, falling in love and marrying the boy next door, eventually dying in childbirth. Several other characters recur, and the Stage Manager (who speaks directly to the audience) brings us up to date on the events in Grover’s Corners since the previous act. The set is a nearly bare stage, the story moves forward in set-pieces (many of which were even then already cliches of stage and screen), and the wonder is that this severely schematic script can and does engage us.
     Thornton’s talent was using stereotypes in a way that we forget they are stereotype. There is enough particularisation that we care about the characters, yet Wilder continually reminds us that we are watching what amounts to an almost abstract fable, a parable, about the value of ordinary life and ordinary people. This life is all we can be sure of having, so we should value the people that we love and who love us.
     The production was very good. Murphy as Emily was especially good. Vernon Bailey found just the right note of matter-of-factness as Stage Manager that his direct talk to us seemed natural. The pace was occasionally slower than I thought it needed to be, and over it there hung a whiff of Reverence for a Classic. But overall I enjoyed the play. Well done. ***

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

The hugging trees on December 26 2012. See March 8 post for an earlier photo.

Two old movies (Review)

The Accidental Tourist (1988) [D: Lawrence Kasdan. William Hurt, Kathleen Turner, Geena Davis] Macon writes travel guides for people who have to travel, and don’t really want to leave the comforts of their American home(s). His son was killed during a robbery, and he has been unable to come to terms with his grief. His wife Sarah asks for a divorce and leaves. When Macon takes his badly behaved dog to a kennel for boarding while he’s on his next assignment, he meets Muriel, who offers to train the dog. She has a son. Macon moves in with her. Eventually, Macon has to choose between the two women, and chooses Muriel. Along the way, Macon’s sister Rose meets Julian, Macon’s publisher, who falls for her. That ends with a happy marriage.
     Obviously, this is a romantic comedy, but it’s not the kind that indulges in farcical or physical humour.  The movie is slow, languid, low-key, it has the feel of one damn thing after another. Anne Tyler wrote the book; based on the few of her things I’ve read, the movie seems a faithful reproduction of her tone. Tyler is interested in the ways in which people manage to eke out some sort of happiness in lives beset with bad luck, pain, stifling habits, obligations to exasperating people, the vagaries of emotion, and the desire for connection. It dragged a bit here and there, but despite that seemed shorter than its two hours.
     There’s a lot of incident and incidental social comedy. Although set in Baltimore, it feels like a New England movie: the characters seem afraid of acknowledging their feelings, let alone expressing them. It’s Muriel’s unapologetic need for pleasure and purpose, not to say any scraps of casual income she can gather, that propels the story. Without her, Sarah and Macon would have divorced without coming up from under their stifling grief, or  understanding how and why their marriage is over. The cliche descriptor is “bitter sweet.” It fits, which might make you think the movie is a cliche, too, but it’s not. It’s one of those quiet little stories that sticks in your mind, and you don’t quite know why. ***

Crossing Delancey (1988) [D: Joan Micklin. Amy Irving, Peter Riegert] Another romantic comedy, one of many that show how one of the partners is mistaken about how to live his or her life, and must be rescued from a fate amounting to death by a wooer who appears to be everything but the right one. In this case, it’s Isabelle, a 30-something New Yorker in the book business, who has deluded herself, and Sam Posner, a third generation pickle seller, who must persist until he has won her. Isabelle’s infatuation with Anton Maes, a third-rate poet, distracts her into believing she wants an intellectual life. Then Sam tells that he saw her three years before, and he only agreed to allow a matchmaker to set him up with Isabelle because he’s been thinking about her ever since. This confession sparks an interest that slowly but surely grows into the kind of comforting passion that spells happy ever after.
     Nicely done, this movie was a pleasure to watch. I’m a sucker for romance, especially the kind where a Knight (Sam) rescues a Maiden (Isabelle) from a Dragon (Anton). ***

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Politics & money

     No, this won't be a rant about how much influence the moneyed have on politics. The only rant is this sentence:
"Politics is driven by misconceptions about money and wealth."
     Too many people think that money is wealth, and that therefore it should be hoarded. The phrase we use is "saving money", which makes hoarding money sound like a virtue. It's not. Our ancestors knew that: the money hoarder is a miser, a miserable Scrooge.
    Money is not wealth. Wealth is goods and services. Money and wealth flow in opposite directions: When I give you a $10 bill for a dozen used books at your yard sale, I have a dozen used books, and you have a $10 bill. You can now exchange that for something you think is worth $10, say a small roast and some mushrooms, from which you will make yourself a stew. The owner of the grocery store can use the $10 to pay an employee. Eventually, that $10 bill could show up in the hands of a neighbour who wants to buy a dozen used books from me at my yard sale. In the meantime, it has enabled a great deal of trading of wealth.
     If I hang onto the $10 bill because I think it's wealth, then you can't sell me your used books, and you can't buy the stew meat and mushrooms, and the grocery store owner will have to get $10 from someone else, and so on. Money is only good for one thing: spending. As long as people spend money, wealth will be traded. More than that: wealth will be created, because people want to trade it.
     In Cabaret, the MC sings "Money makes the world go around." Yes it does. Of course, we don't really need money, we could barter directly, or use IOUs, but money makes it much easier to trade with each other. Trading distributes wealth, which is a good thing. If we couldn't trade our wealth, if we couldn't make wealth to trade, we would each one of us have to find what we needed to survive. Just like the animals who don't have any notion of creating or trading what they need.
     Money makes it easier to share the wealth. That's all.

More trees

Here are the most recent tree photos, posted later than planned. This is a view from our bedroom balcony.

Russian olive in front yard. Both pictures were taken on March 3, the day we had planned to drive to Toronto, but the heavy snow made the highways too risky.

Thursday, March 08, 2012

Here are a couple of my photos of trees, made back in the days of black & white film. In the darkroom, I fiddled with contrast and range by selecting paper and controlling exposure and development. Now, I just move sliders on a tool pane. The trees hugging each other have survived. I will post the most recent photo tomorrow. If you like these pictures, leave a comment.

The Book of Bunny Suicides

Andy Riley The Book of Bunny Suicides (2003) Cartoons illustrating the title theme. Some are bizarre and gruesome (a bunny jumps into a colander, the rock at the other end of the see-saw flips on top of it, it’s reduced to bunny noodles), others merely bizarre (a bunny sits on a bobsled run reading the paper while a four-man sled hurtles down on it), some are just funny (a bunny has attached dynamite to the leaning Tower of Pisa, and is about to depress the plunger). I have no idea how bunny lovers would react to this book. Oh wait, I’m a bunny lover, and I thought this book was funny. Ok, mildly amusing: the joke wears off about half way through. **-½