30 August 2008

The blog system for the trip is established

I have already finished most of my packing for my trip to Munich and Slovenia. It’s about the earliest packing job I’ve ever done, but most of the items I need specifically for the trip I purchased last year for my first expedition to Bavaria. Everything fell into place quickly. And I have a larger suitcase this time—everything is much easier.

Chances are if you are reading this before my actual departure date (2 September 2008), you were directed here by my email giving out the link to my blog series for this trip. I blog heavy when I travel; it is one of the best ways to record for posterity, and it makes the trip more interactive for me, more exploratory. And with my lovely AlphaSmart NEO along, I can do blogging on location and while riding S-Bahns, U-Bahns, and whatever public transportation the Slovenes have.

Again, here is the link for the blogs entries dealing with the trip. I’d love comments from friends and family; I didn’t get enough of that on the last trip. It’s great to hear your voices from across the spans of the globe.

Castle Conwy

I’ve visited a number of historical castles in my travels, from medieval European, early modern European, feudal Japanese, imperial Chinese, and imitation French Chateaus. I’d love to do nothing more than go on a castle tour of Europe for a few months, sojourning from England and structures like Warwick Castle, through France and into Germany to Frederick the Great’s Neues Palais, and finally end in Romania and its many fortresses from the period of warring with the Ottoman Empire. An expensive dream, I know, but an historian and a writer’s dream nonetheless.

My upcoming trip (leaving in three days!) to Munich and then into Slovenia promises a few more grand castles. My Slovenian friend Maja, my tour guide for that country, promises me that her nation is dotted with abandoned castles from the days when Slovenia was part of the Holy Roman Empire of the German People, divided into principalities such as Styria, Carniola, and Carinthia. I’m looking forward to seeing these stone sentinels overlooking the land of the Julian Alps.

The most astonishing castle I’ve seen in my travels is Schloß Neuschwanstein in Bavaria, perhaps the most famous castle in the world. However, Neuschwanstein is a “fantasy” castle, created by König Ludwig II of Bavaria as a fairy-tale world to reflect the fantasies in the operas of Richard Wagner. It is, therefore, as unreal a castle as you might find in a storybook printed at the turn-of-the-century. That is part of the charm—the feeling that, as you approach it, what you are seeing cannot possibly be real.

Switching to the other side of castle-construction, the most impressive practical castle I’ve gone to, a medieval construct designed for defense and not aesthetics, is Conwy Castle in Wales, which I visited in the early ‘90s and which left an enormous impression on me. King Edward III finished the castle in 1289 as part of his dominance over Wales and to guard the shore from a possible attack from the north.

The castle is in a semi-ruined condition from its age and the relentless ocean wind battering its gray stone. When I visited it, the sky was a bleak slate hue and winds whipped hard from the ocean. It was perfect. I remember I climbed to the top of the leftmost high and thin tower in the photo below along a tight winding staircase.
The guard stones around me were very low, and the tower stared right down into the crashing waves of the sea. The sense of vertigo and instability were overwhelming. Another tourist, also an American, stood on the twin of these two forward towers (the one immediately to the right in this photo), his camera in hand but strapped over his neck and under his arm with a secure band. We were close enough to be able to hear each other, even over the skirling of the wind—the photo doesn’t give a sense of how close these two towers actually stand to each other.

He looked at me and smiled, the shouted across the gulf: “Really gives you a secure feeling, doesn’t it?”

And, even though we were Americans, standing on a castle almost eight hundred years old in the land Wales, where all the signs are printed in two languages, I think for that moment we both felt the weight of the bygone era, the sensation of English guards keeping sentry on a miserable blustery day over the harbor. It was a moment of heightened reality that I will never forget, and the closest I have ever come to feeling… medieval.

29 August 2008

Why Barry Lyndon?

My adoration of the 1975 movie Barry Lyndon surprises me. If you ask most Stanley Kubrick fans which film they are most likely to slap into their DVD player to watch for a couple scenes, or view with friends, they would probably say Dr. Strangelove or A Clockwork Orange, maybe even The Shining.

But Barry Lyndon? No way.

In the big picture of my movie-watching life, 2001: A Space Odyssey ranks as my favorite Kubrick picture. I’d place it on the upper shelf of the movies that mean the most to me, next to flicks like Chinatown, King Kong, The Outlaw Josey Wales, and a number of others. (I hate trying to chisel a “best of” list in stone, making it fossilized. Film-love should always be growing, expanding, morphing.) But despite my adoration of 2001, I more often find myself slipping the Barry Lyndon DVD into the player to watch a few scenes, and revel in its look and texture. Once in a while, when I have the three hours to spend, I’ll gleefully watch the whole drawling monster of a period film. I’ve even managed to nudge a few friends into watching it with me, although it requires some trickery that I’ll explain below.

So why Barry Lyndon? One of Kubrick’s longest, most subdued, and “deliberately” paced films?

Short answer: texture and appearance.

Variation on short answer: hypnotic involvement in period through use of texture and appearance.

Some good bottles of wine are helpful. In my quest to enjoy wine more, I’ve found Barry Lyndon an important tool. It seems like a “wine-imbibing film,” even more so than Sideways. More about the Lyndon-alcohol connection about this when I discuss the trickery of a group-watch of Barry Lyndon.

Even for somebody who can’t tolerate the movie would admit that Barry Lyndon contains some of the most sumptuous and astonishing photography ever lensed. It’s more than the standard “glowing period photography” that we all know today. Cameraman John Alcott, who also shot the great noir works of Anthony Mann, achieves the look of period paintings with an ingenious use of natural light. Kubrick deserves huge credit for this as well; he always had a strong influence on the camerawork on his films, having started his career in entertainment as a photographer for Look magazine. Critics have made much of the movie’s use of scenes shot by candlelight; Barry’s talk with the German girl at dinner is the most remarkable of these scenes. But the natural lighting is most stunning in the panoramic landscapes of the Irish location shooting; the sight of a man riding on a horse toward a village appears as if it is documentary footage achieved by a time-traveling crew of National Geographic’s top photographers. And just look at the deep reddish blue of the sky! Seriously, there are places when Barry Lyndon looks ridiculous. Nothing should look that beautiful. And yes, the movie won the Oscar for Best Cinematography.

An interesting note about how some of the natural-lit scenes were achieved: Alcott and Kubrick purchased specially ground Zeiss lenses that were designed for photography during the 1969 Moon-landing. Any time some nutcase starts making crazy claims about the Moon-landing being faked—and we actually have one of these folks at my office—I just say “Barry Lyndon.” There’s plenty of proof that we did land on the Moon, but Barry Lyndon’s photography clinches it for me.

I’m not a fan of the way that Kubrick created the soundtracks to most of his films. I would prefer he had made greater use of an original composer. I’m one of the small group that believes 2001 would have benefited from the rejected Alex North score. But Barry Lyndon’s compilation of music of the time period is perfect. The mix of military marches, Irish folk tunes (performed by the Chieftains), classical chamber music, and the grand and sinister orchestral arrangements of Handel’s “Sarbande” are entrancing. I especially love the eerie drum and woodwind piece “The Sea-Maidens” used for the scene where Captain Feeney the highwaymen robs Barry on his way to Dublin.

Barry Lyndon is altogether a transporting film, and the best example of period film-making engrossing the viewer so that it’s impossible to tell when the movie was actually made. Only the age of star Ryan O’Neal would tell someone that the movie was shot in the 1970s. It’s more than photography, costuming, music, and performance. There’s something about the pace of the film that removes me totally from the twenty-first century and into the mid-eighteenth. Starting from Barry’s stuttering attempt to woo his cousin Nora Brady—a woman completely unworthy of his affections—to the almost slow-motion duel between Barry and his vengeful son-in-law Lord Bullingdon (a fight leisurely enough to allow one of the participants to stop and vomit in the corner before returning to the duel), the film gives the sense of the different pace of life in the 18th century. Even during a war.

Michael Horden’s strange omniscient narration adds the right touch the proceedings. He gives a distance and an embalmed quality to the emotional aspects of the film, purposely narrating against much of what we see. This is a huge change from the book, which is narrated by Redmond Barry himself with wry humor. Kubrick nixes the humor entirely, and his deity-like narrator presides over the slow march of Barry’s fate.

This leisurely yet entrancing pace thus makes this an terrific film for a getting slowly drunk with a few friends of discerning artistic taste. If you want to convince someone to watch Barry Lyndon with you, bring over some expensive whisky or wine, and slowly imbibe over the whole three hours. I guarantee you a transcendental time.

Barry Lyndon has my favorite movie poster ever.

…they are all equal now.

28 August 2008

The costume still needs some digital help

With the arrival of the most key element of my Halloween costume—the jacket—much of the outfit is in place. The big task now (which I’ll take care of in early October, after I’m back from Germany and Slovenia) will be the creation of the purple fabric question marks and adhering them to the fabric. To test what it might look like, I’ve added through Photoshop some digital question marks. the final product will also involve two props I don’t have yet, but know where to procure: purple gloves, and a crook cane. I’m also going to wear a purple shirt, but it’s currently at the cleaners.
Man, this is going to be a great Halloween.

(See my update on how the costume is developing.)

Movie Review: The Abominable Snowman

The Abominable Snowman (1957)
Directed by Val Guest. Starring Peter Cushing, Forrest Tucker, Maureen Connell, Robert Brown

While I’m on the Hammer topic, let’s talk about another recent DVD view of mine.

In the period before Hammer discovered the lucrative field of Technicolor Gothic horror through the smash hits of The Curse of Frankenstein and Dracula (U.S. title: Horror of Dracula), they had success with black and white science-fiction films with horror overtones. The most notable were the “Quatermass” movies written by Nigel Kneale, The Quatermass Xperiment and Quatermass 2. Neither of these films are currently available on DVD in the U.S., although X the Unknown, which is basically a Quatermass film in all but name, is on disc and worth catching.

27 August 2008

Blog re-design

For the third time, I’ve shifted the template for my blog. The older one started looking cramped, and although I appreciated the minimalist design, this one is even more minimalist and easier to read. This is all in preparation for my trip, beginning next week, to Germany and Slovenia. You can expect my daily blog of events as I go along, just as I did with my trip to Germany last year. And, with my AlphaSmart NEO along, it will be even easier to record events as they happen.

And I’ll throw more, more, more photos of Diego at you. You have been warned.

“The Gorgon” and The Gorgon (coming soon!)

In October, right in time for Halloween, we will finally have a DVD of the 1964 Hammer horror film The Gorgon, one of the most unusual of the Terence Fisher-Peter Cushing-Christopher Lee vehicles, featuring a monster of the classical era put into Victorian times. It's a wonderful find of a flick, and it should have gotten digital attention far earlier.

The anticipation of this disc inspired me to re-read a wonderful short story about the infamous snaked-head petrifying she-monster. No, not “Shambleau” by C. L. Moore, although that’s a phenomenal story as well, but “The Gorgon” by Clark Ashton Smith. It’s one of his modern horror tales, but as usual has the dross of the ancient, the creak of antiquarian. It's all sensation, and only a touch of plot, and just the right dose of decadence and word-poetry that you need on a dull Wednesday night.

The nameless narrator of the story (there are so many nameless storytellers in Smith's work, and they usually seem to be authorial stand-ins) has gone off London to wipe away the memory of the recent death of a woman he loved. He is a seeker of mysteries and wonders, and this draws to him a stranger from the fog: “He seemed to have stepped from an age and land of classical mythology, into the teeming turmoil of that London street…” The stranger invites the man to see a great wonder, the head the Medusa herself. He hints that warping of time and space has brought the head into contemporary London, a typical example of Smithian hand-waving turned effective by its very oddness.

The narrator follows the classically-styled stranger through the twists of London alleys and into an ancient mansion, where he can look upon the Gorgon's face safely through an acnient mirror. “But I must warn you again to be supremely careful;” the stranger reminds him, “and also, you must be prepared for its exceeding and overwhelming beauty no less than for its horror. The danger lies, as you may well imagine, in the former quality.”

This contradiction is one I see often in Clark Ashton Smith’s work. He unleashed beauty in the grotesque, and hypnotizes with abomination. His actual description of Medusa's head when the narrator beholds it in a tarnished mirror is one of the author's quintessential passages.

(This mix of beauty-horror fascination also appears in “Shambleau,” a story quite worthy of its own blog entry. You can read a bit about it in this essay I wrote on C. L. Moore’s popular series of Jirel of Joiry stories.)

“The Gorgon” originally appeared in the April 1932 issue of Weird Tales and is currently collected in Lost Worlds from Bison Books.

Update: Read the review of the movie.

22 August 2008

21 August 2008

Deutsch / Slovenski

I’m attempting to learn both Slovene and German at the same time (and continuing to study Latin, one of my hobbies, all while balancing a spoon on my nose). This has started to twist around my widdle tiny brain, particularly since I’m cramming all this into two weeks before a trip to both countries.

However, I’m learning the languages with two different goals in mind, and that alters the definition of what it means to be “learning” a language.

I’m only trying to “pick up some Slovene”; I’m not approaching the grammar of the language at all, which would require serious dedication because I’ve never attempted to learn a Slavic language. (Also, the only book on Slovene that I’ve found has no grammar help at all.) Most Slovenians speak English, and I don’t know how often I’ll be in the country in the future to make a study of their mother tongue productive. So what I hope to accomplish as far as this South Slavic language is concerned is getting a grasp on its standard phrases and pronunciation.

As for German… my sister and her husband live there and probably will stehen dort for at least the nächste fünf jahre. I would lay even money on them staying even longer. And now I have a nephew who will grow up speaking German (and English, of course). I think I should ardently and honestly learn German. More than just asking the way to the bus, or “Wie viel kostet ein Weiß Bier?” I want to know the language, not necessarily fluently, but effectively. Unfortunately, dedicating myself to learning Deutsch is difficult during the greater part of the year; unless I’m in the country or about to visit it, it’s hard to force myself to sit down and do the hard work required to learn the language. (For some reason I have no trouble making myself take a seat and learn Latin, but that has something to do with a wiring malfunction in my brain. Meus animus est insanus, certe.)

However, I think I’ve discovered a local native German speaker on whom I can practice my shaky Deutsch. I’ll give you a report on that tomorrow.

20 August 2008

Ich möchte Käse Spätzel, bitte

The Spaniard (a.k.a. Diego) finally tries on some of the fashions of his home state of Bavaria.

"Now get me some Weiß Bier, a big honking pretzel, an albino sausage, some Käse Spätzel, and an alpine horn."

17 August 2008

16 August 2008

Zdravo! Govorim malo slovensko

Dober večer. Kako ste? Ime mi je Ryan. Ostem dva tedna. Tu sem na počitnicah. Ste poročeni? Sem samski.

(Those accented “c”s didn’t come out in the right font. Must not like Georgia, my favorite on-line serif font.)

14 August 2008

Mom explains lack of Galactus

Last week there was a brief period of concern over my Nephew Diego's medical condition. I didn't post anything at the time because 1) nothing was yet certain, and 2) my comprehension of the medical terminology was so shaky based on the descriptions I received that if I tried to describe it, it would make as much sense as most Star Trek techno-babble. I am the only member of my immediate family who isn't involved in medicine (I am the rebel) and therefore don't get it when these folks start slinging the lingo. I know what the words mean in their Latin and Green context, but that's about all.

So, bowing to the greater expertise, here's an excerpt from an email from my mother explaining the situation. I have done some editing for clarity (and because I'm freakish perfectionist about mechanics; remember, I'm the non-medical guy in the family).
As most of you know already, there was some concern over a metabolic problem that was picked up on Diego's newborn screening. Long story short: Diego is okay. After much blood testing and many anxious moments and many tears, it has been determined that he has a "little" condition know as Duarte's Variant. The problem looked to be some type of Galactosemia and at first he was thought to have Galactokinase deficiency—a missing enzyme that converts Galactose. Colleen wouldn't have been able to continue breastfeeding and Diego would have been on a special diet all his life. The Duarte's variant is a minor level of the Galactokinase deficiency, but doesn't necessitate special treatment. This situation is known as an "Inborn error on Metabolism," meaning it is inherited. So Colleen and Armin both are carriers for some level of Galactosemia. They will now have go through some genetic testing to see what this may mean for future children. For the moment though, there is a great sense of relief and gratefulness. Since many of you are family, we will let you know how this plays out because it may have meaning in your own childrens' lives. At the very least, every expectant parent should know which tests are included in the newborn screenings in their own state—every state is different—and have the Galactosemia screening done for sure. It can make an enormous difference in a child's life.
So, Diego isn't in danger of having the planet-eating alien creature Galactus attack him. Somebody found the Ultimate Nullifier and took care of that. But I will have to have a Galactus check before I have any children. Maybe a Darkseid check.

11 August 2008

New photo of Churchill's famous speech

My sister sent me this photo of Winston Churchill giving his famous "Never Surrender" speech. Very inspiring.

"We shall not flag nor fail. We shall go on to the end. We shall fight in France and on the seas and oceans; we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air. We shall defend our island whatever the cost may be; we shall fight on beaches, landing grounds, in fields, in streets and on the hills. We shall never surrender..."

08 August 2008

Diego Baby Blog

My sister and her husband have started a blog about their new addition to the family, my nephew Diego. Here’s a photo of my sister and her son. (Egad, it’s weird for me to write that. My sister has a son?)

My sister looks… different… in this picture to me. I don’t know exactly how to describe it, since I’ve know her all her life. But motherhood has changed her. Or maybe it’s just the light, camera lense, or something else. Odd, to say the least, how someone you’ve know for so long can suddenly look like someone you don’t think you’ve ever seen before.

06 August 2008

I run tire treads over my own nostalgia

Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man (1991)
Directed by Simon Wincer. Starring Mickey Rourke, Don Johnson, Tom Sizemore, Daniel Baldwin, Chelsea Field.

You can have nostalgia for a film you’ve never seen. Perhaps the poster struck you, or the time it came out in theaters was a memorable one in your life. Whatever the reason, the movie’s existence—not the movie itself—has some important meaning for you.

One of those movies for me is 1991’s Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man, an action picture with a slight futuristic angle (it takes place five years in the future, which is now twelve years in our past) starring the rapidly falling stars of Mickey Rourke and Don Jonson. The film memorably hefts a commercial-heavy title, but the reason I had a nostalgic soft-spot for an A-budgeted version of ‘B’ biker flick is that it came out in theaters the last week of August, right before I went away to college for my freshman year. It was the end of my old world, and the beginning of another, and when I saw the film’s tagline on its posters—“SUMMER’S LAST BLAST!”—the realization of how my life was about to change was immense. The bittersweet “goodbye to all that” of the end of that summer is linked in my mind to posters, ads, and reviews for Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man.

This week, in a random attack of nostalgia (does becoming an uncle do these sorts of things to you?), I decided to actually rent the damn thing and watch it.

Cripes, that was a mistake.

My nostalgia isn’t ruined, but Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man works better as a film you might want to see, rather than something you have seen. It’s a tired and cliché exercise in a biker action flick that would have been much more entertaining if made as a 1960s or ‘70s drive-in or grindhouse exploitation film. It needs more sleaze to keep it entertaining, and even if it makes feints at that in its raunchy language and topless shots in the first few minutes, it still ends up as a very generic action picture in the standard style of the day, when “action” consisted of two kinds: 1) shooting a gun while standing in the open; 2) shooting a gun while taking cover. The most entertaining thing about the movie is the big n’ bold disclaimer in a thick font that pops up before the M-G-M logo even appears, informing everyone that none of the characters’ commercialized names are an endorsement, and no company put up money for their names to be used. The filmmakers were probably terrified that someone might mistake their movie for a cigarette commercial.

I did also enjoy the hilarious sight of Daniel Baldwin leading around a team of killers hired by the evil futuristic bank who dress in long leather nehru-collar trenchcoats that make them look like a mix of German performance artists and Benedictine monks. This must be a nod to the semi-cyberpunk future, but since nothing else in the film smacks of futurist anything, the weird design just comes off like a pack of guys who contracted a James Bond villain to cobble together their costumes. (“No, really, you’ll be totally incognito in these coats!”)

I know I’ll make movie nostalgia mistakes in the years to come. There will be some pleasant surprises as well. But sad to say, Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man ruined my appreciation of its existence.

03 August 2008

Camp Hollywood photos & Diego speaks

It was another fun weekend of dancing at the annual Camp Hollywood, where people come from oceans away—and I from the next zip code—to dance oddly. I only went to two of the four nights (shredding my feet last year taught me a lesson) but it was the full lindy machine craziness.

Here’s two photos of me dancing with my partner, Laurel:
I talked to my sister on the phone today; she’s back home from the hospital and getting used to life as a mom. I got to hear my nephew Diego’s voice for the first time! His German is not very good.

01 August 2008

···Use Interpuncts!···

Writing about the movie WALL·E has shown me the power of the interpunct. The “interpunct” looks like a period hanging in the middle of the air, like this (“·”). It was used to separate words in ancient Latin, before spaces turned into all the rage. Today you see it most often in dictionary definitions, where it separates the syllables of the words. I think it’s beautiful, and we should be getting more use out of it. Softer than a hyphen in the middle of the word, with a rounded simplicity that both separates the words, yet draws them more together. It would work especially well for acronyms. For example:


Let’s all make an effort to use the interpunct more often in our day·to·day lives. Embrace retro·punctuation!