Tell me of this… Bollywood.

It is clear to me now, in the middle years of my life, that I’ve been missing something. I’m not a big fan of musicals — no, let me just say I simply don’t like them, even when they’re disguised as popular entertainment — but there is this giant film factory out there, producing an amazing amount of work on a very low budget, and some of it is quite possibly good. Statistically, by now they must have produced a few I’d enjoy.

So how do I get to know Bollywood? Anyone know?

Just Because I Don’t Know What They’re Saying Doesn’t Make it Not Crap

I’m at the Budvar Bar Near Home right now. There aren’t many people here, and the plasma TV is showing an American thriller movie. Tom Clancy was mentioned in the opening credits, and it seems that Ben Affleck is the star.

It could be that Mr. Clancy bludgeons himself whenever he’s reminded of this flick. I hope so. I’ve read several books by him that I’ve enjoyed greatly. But what is happening before my eyes on the television is patently ridiculous.

A pilot is patrolling the desert wastes. He is distracted when the photo of his wife and child comes untaped from his jet fighter dashboard. While trying to recover the photo he lets his guard down and runs into a hostile missile. Words fail me. The photo on the dashboard immediately classified the guy as Dead Meat. But then I am asked to believe that a guy carrying an atomic fuckin’ bomb would be distracted that way. Or even that he would be flying without an escort.

Then I’m asked to believe that those who lost the bomb shrugged and said, “oh, well, we can make another.” Twenty-nine years later, the bomb is recovered by Bad Guys. “It’s warm!” one of the scavengers declares. I am being asked to believe (I think) that the Israelis lost an atomic bomb and didn’t try to get it back. Yeeeeaaaah, riiiight. Tom! Mr. Clancy! That wasn’t your idea, was it? I can still respect you, can’t I?

OK, and as I watch we have the silliest of all action movie conceits. The standoff where each guy is pointing a gun at the other. Only in Hollywood would someone hesitate to pull the trigger. *ahem quentin* Seriously. A standoff occurs when the person who moves first loses. Guns pointed at each other is not a standoff situation – the first to move wins. If I have a gun pointed at someone’s head, and they have a gun pointed at mine, and we’re not old chums from back in the day, I’m pulling the trigger.

It could be that there was dialog to go along with this patently ridiculous standoff to make it make sense. If I was the guard with bad teeth, things would not have got to that point. Here’s the test I give myself as a writer, for every character in every story. Would I have done that? Given that character X has limited information and even less time to make a decision, would any non-stupid human being act the way the author asked this guy to behave? You can’t base a plot on the actions of stupid people.

Nor can you depend on bad driving, but as the movie progresses they have done that too. You can’t make a really stupid driving error a plot point. OK, you can, but you shouldn’t. The car that won’t start should be reserved for crappy horror movies. Please, Mr. Clancy, tell me you’re better than this. I hunger for the reassurance that you were not responsible for what I have been watching.

Although, honestly, I know you’ve already sold out. You flog your name shamelessly, unconcerned with quality. There’s the whole series of crappy airport novels with your name on them that you can’t feel good about. But there they are. You’ve earned your laurels. Just… don’t insult me like this.

Hopefully, when I sell out, I will do it more gracefully.

Dear Mr. Obama

I can dance you into the ground. Seriously. I think there might have been a time in your life when you could let go and allow the music to move you, but that was before politics. Take heart knowing that you are the only candidate worthy of my challenge.

You. Me. Loud music. I will shame you.

Submarine Stories

I like submarine stories. They are particularly movie-friendly, as well, so there are quite a few good submarine flicks out there. This will not be a guide to those movies.

I had a girlfriend once who could not watch submarine movies. The claustrophobia, the fear, the complete forfeiture of personal space that defines submarine life was intolerable for her. Which meant that she really felt submarine movies. From a storytelling standpoint, a submarine is a prison that is trying to kill both wardens and inmates.

Every submarine movie has the part where The Submarine Must Go Far Deeper Than It Was Ever Designed To Go. “Silent running. 200 meters,” the captain says (”600 feet” echoes another captain, in another ocean). The crew glances around nervously. “220 meters,” the captain says, and the hull begins to groan ominously. The crew’s faces are shiny and the air is still, too still. They cannot speak or the enemy will find them; they can only share glances. It’s the hell above or the hell below, and they always choose the hell below.

This has been in damn near every submarine movie ever, and it still works! A bunch of people are trapped in a tin can, there are a bunch of other people trying to kill them, and the only direction that is not sure depth is deeper. Now this machine that keeps them alive is itself failing, and it is up to the crew to somehow keep everything together until they can return to the surface and its ridiculously abundant free oxygen.

But I wonder about something. Down they go, sweating and nervous and already thinking about oxygen and how nice it is to have in one’s lungs. The hull groans, then groans again, and then bang! A bolt fails on a pipe and super-pressuirzed water shoots out in a spray. Gutsy sailors fly into action with a new bolt and a big wrench, but before long more bolts are popping. There is shouting: “Medic! Medic!” and “we need a big-ass wrench right now!” and the boat begins to fill with water, systems fail, and things get progressively worse. They are trapped between a rock and a very, very firm place, where only teamwork and strong leadership can pull them through. Good stuff.

I wonder, though, what the first submarine in service was that didn’t have pipes running through it with water at sea pressure? What the hell were those pipes accomplishing? The whole scenario is so ubiquitous that I think there must be some historical veracity, but really, would you design a submarine that way? Fundamentally, you use the pressure to squeeze the joint shut, rather than fighting it with (replaceable) bolts squeezing joints together.

I am much more tolerant of the part where the crew produces massive timbers and wedges them in place to help prevent the hull from collapsing. Whatever the actual business, I have never seen a submarine movie where the time when they are Too Deep was not intense. The water hides you, the water traps you, and eventually the water kills you.

Usually boats on particularly important missions can survive much worse than the ordinary submarine. After all, from a story standpoint, the mission must be completed. A tip of my hat, then, to the boys on Das Boot, who endured all of the above and more simply to report to base in a war already lost. It is a story of honor and survival and Going Too Deep when there is nothing else left. Submariners, I suspect, like that movie.

MySpace Heroes

I’ve been spending too much of my life over at MySpace recently. I signed up a few months ago so I could send a message to Zombina and the Skeletones, but that was all I did. Recently I was hanging with That Girl and her sister, and TGS paused to check how things were going in an online game called Heroes. It turns out that an important part of the game is getting other folks to join your bunch, so a few days later I joined in — just to help her out, of course.

I spent too much of my life getting to know the game, then another too much of my life playing the game. It also turns out that there are several other games on MySpace — or should I say several iterations of the game with different graphics. Mobsters seems to be the most popular, but there are also space, pirate, and vampire iterations with only minor differences. In all of the games it is beneficial to build up a whole boatload of friends (up to 500). Somewhere word got out that I would accept invitations to be anybody’s buddy in any game. I am a game friend slut, and now I appear to be very popular on MySpace. I have started down the slippery slope from slut to whore; I have now posted my name in a couple of places where people go to find friends for these games. [Since I wrote that a couple of days ago, my transition is complete. I now actively approach people who say they are interested.]

So what are these games that are eating my brain? In truth, they’re really not that great. Activities fall into three categories: invest in real estate to build wealth, gather members in your group, and buy stuff so your guys can beat up other guys and take some of their money.

There’s really no goal to the games, except get more money to buy more stuff to get more power so you can beat up more people. (Even the beating up happens off-camera.) Why am I still playing? I don’t know. But when I wake up in the morning the first thing I do is check to see if anyone else attacked me while I slept and stole some of my money. I calculate how long it will take at my current income level to be able to afford a particular piece of property. I have, as mentioned above, gradually become more active in adding other people into my bunch. Once they are added they are little more than a number – no further interaction is required (although some players do try to build a group cohesion).

Once things are under control in Heroes, I make the rounds of all the other clones, making sure I keep my promises to join other people’s bunches. I don’t actually do anything in those other games except occasionally reinvest real estate income.

So far that’s not a big slice out of my life, but then, then I have to check back periodically to see how things are going. Every time I review my real estate investments and strategy going forward, even though that strategy only hits important events every couple of days (and I have calculated when that time will be). Every time I go over all the gear I have for my bunch to use in battle, even though my needs in that area don’t change very often either. Every time I wind up poking around for someone to attack who might cough up a lot of money, then I decide not to bother. Every time I check for messages to see if someone in my group is asking for help kicking someone’s butt for whatever reason.

None of that takes a lot of time, and in fact my total time on the game is probably not that bad. The problem is that I do it often, and any momentum I might have had on other tasks is irretrievably lost, so I can play what amounts to an accounting game. I’ve got to get this game out of my head.

On a related note I plan to put a strategy guide to the various games up on my MySpace page, once I run some spreadsheet simulations of different stgrategies. And of course if you want to join my bunch, guild, mob, crew, family, or band (depending on the game) you are welcome to add me as a friend – http://myspace.com/?writerjer – and invite me in. I’ll join anything.

Edited to add: I now have an investment spreadsheet that people can download at Jer’s Software Hut, designed to answer the qustion whether it’s better to by one of a property or a batch of ten, depending on your circumstances.

Já, robot

I, Robot the film with Will Smith in it is on TV right now. I’ve never seen the movie in English, but I had heard that it wasn’t very much like the short story collection by Isaac Asimov. All I can say is that unless there’s some dialog that really doesn’t match the action on the screen, the title is the only thing the two have in common. The bit I watched was much closer to Terminator 2 than it was to anything that ever came from Asimov’s pen. Gone is the graceful economy of the writer’s storytelling style. The original stories presented a series of intellectual challenges; problems that were solved with cleverness and occasionally personal risk, but none of these ridiculous flurries of hyper-accelerated violence.

And maybe it’s the small screen, but the cinematography in the action scenes I watched was crappy too. Absurdly, forehead-slappingly over the top, which could possibly be forgivable if it weren’t so badly done. So, if there’s anyone else out there who has not seen the movie, well, don’t bother. Read the stories instead.

A Couple of Thoughts About Star Trek

On the starship Enterprise they have one hell of a computer. I thought about it today watching someone work their iPhone. The Enterprise had even more computing power than that, way back in the ’60’s. Not bad.

But here’s something that’s bothered me for a couple of decades now. At one point Spok plays chess with the computer and wins. Since Spok was the one who taught the computer to play chess, and he gave the computer all his chess knowledge, that he could beat the computer proved that the computer had been tampered with. Which has always made me wonder: Why the hell did Spok play chess? Apparently the idea that he could get better at the game, gain new insight and thus be able to beat his own program, is unthinkable. So, if he’s not going to get better, if he’s just exercising the same algorithms that he programmed into the computer, why bother?

An unplanned bonus Star Trek beef: some of the guys are freezing to death on a planet. The transporter is doing wacky stuff. Shuttle, anyone? You know the writers were taking a bunker attitude, hoping no one would think of that.

Missing on the Star Trek crew: the IT guy. There are hints now and then, when someone messes with the computer (and I must say that the ‘mess with the computer’ scenarios are already coming true), but you’ve got a guy in charge of the warp drives but no one dedicated to the computer. I haven’t spent much time with the Star Trek progeny, but in The Next Generation the guy in charge or the computer was a computer, which in the end begs the question. The deep space galctica Enterprise prequel thing I’ve not seen any of, so I can’t comment there.

Note that Galaxy Quest, one hell of a fine movie, casts Sigourny Weaver as the IT babe, though her IT role is somewhat limited – she is the interface between man and machine. Presumably, in the Galaxy Quest universe, the computer respects her intellect over all others. That’s how I spin it, anyway.

An Open letter to Britney Spears

I don’t know you. I’ve heard of you, of course, or I would not be writing this. But I don’t know you. I don’t know what you said or didn’t say, did or didn’t do. I’m even vague on what you look like; I would not be able to pick you out in a police lineup, though I’m sure I’ve seen you on TV once or twice.

What I do know is that the whole world seems to be taking unnatural delight in dumping on you. That has to be tough.

If you want to spend a few days not being a pop superstar, drop me a line. I’ll meet you at the airport holding a sign that says “Emily Bronte”. Nothing personal about the sign, but I don’t think I would recognize you. Then again, you wouldn’t recognize me either, so it’s even. I’m a pretty boring guy, but maybe boring might be fun for a few days. Simple times, when you can randomly yell “Shit!” and never have to explain why. As a special bonus, I can teach you a couple of dance moves.

Note to the rest of the world: do the woman a favor, and back off for a while. It’s hard enough to get your shit together it in private.

The Simpsons’ Big Movie

In my sublithic state I was unaware until a couple of days ago that there was a big movie version of The Simpsons coming out. Last night some of the folks I know took the initiative and put together an outing to go see this epic of the adventures of yellow-skinned, four-fingered people.

For large American movies, it’s pretty easy to find a venue playing the film in English, but this showing was unusual in that there were no Czech subtitles. The Simpsons are popular here, but this theater decided to cater exclusively to English-speakers.

There is a point near the beginning of the flick where Homer points directly out of the screen and says something like “Suckers! You’re paying to watch what we usually do for free on TV!” I thought of letting the review stand at that, but in fairness I have to say that there are quite a few television episodes that are funnier than this movie was. I enjoyed the movie, don’t get me wrong, but the humor density was less than on the TV show — twice the funny in four times the space.

Karlovy Vary Film Festival, Day 8

Day 8, the last full day of movie-watching, was only two days ago, but already the memory is a bit on the sketchy side. Our first film wasn’t until 4 p.m., which made for a lazy day. From four to midnight I caught four movies.

And they were… uh…

Mutant Lizards! I remember the midnight one had mutant lizards. It was pretty good.

I do remember thinking that it had been a pretty good set of movies… I just can’t remember what they were.

Joe Strummer! One of them was an excellent documentary about the life of the front man for The Clash. Quite moving at times.

And… um… two others.

Quite a day!

Karlovy Vary Film Festival, Day 7

There was a minor hullaballoo surrounding the screening of David Lynch’s new movie Inland Empire, so perhaps it was the European premiere or something like that. Then again, maybe not. I did score a free T-shirt out of the deal, whatever the reason.

One thing about staying up to watch the campy movies at midnight, coming home and writing, then getting up in the morning to score the next batch of tickets: there isn’t much time for sleeping. So it was that we arrived at the screening armed with Coca-Cola and sandwiches, mentally preparing ourselves to become one with our seats.

I’m not the biggest David Lynch fan to start with, and this movie did not substantially move my opinion of him in either direction. fuego said it best: “The thing is that he almost makes sense, so you keep watching, thinking it’s about to come together.” Well, that’s not exactly what he said, but it’s close. At the end of this one, something significant has happened, and there are some people who are happier than they were, others not.

I got the feeling at some points, however, that the creative process went something like “Hmm… this part is tedious. Let’s put the actors in rabbit suits so people will be confused rather than bored.” It’s a sort of sleight-of-hand that shifts the blame for not enjoying the film onto the viewer. Instead of saying “I didn’t like it,” people say of Lynch’s movies “I didn’t get it.”

Quite a few people left early, but I lasted to the end. I fought heavy eyelids for a bit, but by the end I was fully engaged. The movie portrays people living multiple, parallel lives, drifting between them in a lost, confused fashion and intersecting each other in interesting ways (for far too long), and at the end you do get a feeling of resolution, even if you’re not sure just what was resolved.

Overall, I’m glad I went and I’m glad I stayed to the end, but it’s not a movie I’m going to go out of my way to see again.

The rest of the day included an Australian comedy with excellently crafted characters called (I think) Lucky Miles. The description sounds like the beginning of an off-color joke. “An Iraqi, a Cambodian, and a Thai are in the Australian outback…” Hijinks ensue, seasoned with moments of drama. Next came a Czech film titled in English Empties, another comedy that did a great job of mixing in drama. The writer/main actor spoke a few words before the show, and said, “I wanted to show that growing older does not make you any better at life.”

Finally, it wouldn’t be a movie day without zombies. fuego and I had been joking about zombie exploitation and labor laws earlier in the week, and now here was a movie that was about that very subject. It is set in a 1950’s-like American Dream town, with shiny cars and white picket fences. And zombies, of course, fitted with special collars that curb their desire to eat human flesh. The zombies provide a docile and cheap labor force. No one has forgotten the Zombie Wars, however, and marksmanship is an important part of the grade-school curriculum. “Remember, always shoot for the head!”

Overall, it was a good day of movie-watchin’. Only two days left, then it’s back to the real world. Whatever that is.

Karlovy Vary Film Festival, Day 6

There is a routine to life here at Karlovy Vary. Each day starts with scoring tickets for our chosen movies for the following day. Today it was my turn to get up and schlep down to the special box office for insiders. On the way in I passed long lines of people standing in the rain, waiting for the box offices for the common folk to open. Minutes later I was breezing past them the other direction, my only delay being some difficulty with the bar-code scanner as the girl scanned my Badge. No worries, it gave me a little bit of time to venture a very small joke in czech, which she dutifully laughed at while correcting my grammar.

It’s good to be an insider, especially when the festival is designed to be an industry event first, and a public movierama second.

Today is Slavic Day for fuego and me; we started the day with a couple of shorter Czech films, one of which was all right and the other not very good, then went on to a Polish film that was an unrelenting downer from start to finish. It was well-acted, but the production never shifted gears, only briefly giving glimpses of happiness (quickly and guiltily stifled) as things steadily spiral downward.

Now I’m in a pub named for the Good Soldier Svéjk (rhymes with ache), one of the Czech Republic’s greatest war heroes (not only was he terrible at waging war, a drunk, and a conniver, he was fictitious), having a drop of Kozel Dark to lift my spirits. Not that lifting them is terribly difficult; I disengaged from the (well-portrayed) weak main characters fairly early on. In the end, I had no sympathy for anyone.

Next up comes a Serbian flick, The Optimists. I’ve got my fingers crossed. After that no more movies until midnight, when we’ll see if the Norwegians are able to match the New Zealanders for pure schlock magic. In between I hope to keep the writing momentum going; the last couple of days have been quite productive.

We are indoors for our interludes today; the weather outside is unseasonably chilly, the light rain pushed around by just enough of a cold breeze to make sitting outside under an awning uncomfortable. I’m hoping for nicer weather tomorrow, when I’ll haul out the camera and take a few snaps around town.

Karlovy Vary Film Festival, Day 4

I’ve decided not to worry about trying to give my impressions of every damn movie I see while I’m here. I’ve seen some good flicks and some not-so-good ones, but if you want a play-by-play of the festival, that’s where my brother comes in. He’s a little behind right now, but his goal is to pop up a movie review in almost real time as we catch the flicks. He has the technology.

I will say, however, that I really enjoyed the Danish movie Prag (In English, “Prague”). It was fun for a few reasons that might not apply to the general viewing audience, but even without the “Hey! I know that square!” pleasure of recognition, a foreign place now familiar, and without the amplified humor of the Czech mindset from the perspective of a foreigner, what is left underneath is still a darn good film. The subject is a heavy one, but there is just the right touch of humor to make the whole thing go down easily. If it were food, I’d be complimenting the chef on the delicate balance of flavors. So if it comes your way, or you’re in the mood for something more substantial while you’re staring at the titles in the video store, Check out Prague. It is the movie that has dominated our conversation since.

It is evening now, and I’m sitting in a sidewalk café in a pedestrian zone, watching people more than writing. The sky is still light despite the advancing hour, and there are plenty of people worth watching.

It’s now official; I completely failed to spend any time with my pretty czech teacher, a film buff who laughs at my jokes. She and her friends have left the festival to go back to Prague. Bummer. I will persevere, however; I will continue going to movies and sitting in cafés, and try somehow to enjoy myself, and try to maintain some sort of upbeat vibe here at the center of the Media Empire. You don’t have to thank me; it’s what I do.

Karlovy Vary Film Festival, Day 3

Two surprises tonight. Hostel II was actually a pretty good flick if you’re into that kind of thing, and the short films sucked. Some of them had visual appeal, and there was a touch of irony here and there, but not one damn short told a story. It was all about images. I feel better about Pirates, now. It would have brought down the house tonight; the audience was hungry for something more than what they were given. They were craving the originality and offbeat humor that you get in a good short film. Maybe it’s the fault of the people who decide what to put in the show, but honestly I was fighting off sleep while I watched.

Karlovy Vary Film Festival, Day 2

Our last-minute lodgings took a turn for the even better this morning when the landlady arrived with a bag full of food. Bread, cheese, cold cuts, jam and butter — nothing fancy but plenty good enough. Thus the day began on an unexpectedly high note.

The rain is playing a gentle staccato tune on the awning as I sit here at a pleasant sidewalk café, reflecting on the movie I saw this morning. We were in an inflatable theater, which would have been a pretty good venue but the sound isolation from outside wasn’t very good. If the movie had been more interesting, that might not have mattered as much. Title I Can’t Reproduce From Memory had its moments, but when it was over I was rather amazed that only 90 minutes had passed. Was it Chekhov who said that when you show a gun in act one, it should go off in act three? In this movie the gun never went off. The blurb said something like “Kid is drawn into a dark and violent underworld,” when it really should have said, “Kid draws near underworld, doesn’t do much, and then goes home to take care of his mother.”

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Another movie, another gentle rain under the awning of a café. It’s a tough life.

This movie was Ma che ci faccio qui? (What the Hell am I Doing Here?), an Italian film, and when you boil it down it was an “I know! Let’s put on a show and save the bar!” movie. You’ve seen them before. Happily, this was a very nicely done LPOASASTB movie, with genuine humor and a bit of heart as well. There’s nothing wrong with rehashing an old idea if you do it well. Heck, somewhere around Homer all the good ideas were taken. (Although, it might have been Chaucer who did the first LPOASASTB story.) The movie was from a young director who made it in film school, which adds to the surprise of how much top-quality acting was involved.

Walking around after the movie we ran into a couple of fuego’s coworkers on one film or another. One woman, when she heard I was his brother, looked at me and said, “from Pirates of the White Sand?” She was enthusiastic. That was nice.

Now I need to get some work done.

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Movie three today was German-Polish-Czech movie that kept me chuckling for much of the time. I’m not sure how it would play to an American audience, although the stereotypes of the Czechs, Poles, and Germans are just as broad and unflattering as that of the token American in the film. Schroder’s wonderful World is about a man who has the idea to use American money to build a theme park where former East Germany, Poland, and the Czech Republic intersect, an area that is rather an international mess of communist industrialization, much of which has now been razed. The mayors of the three towns of the triangle must cooperate to make the project work.

I don’t think I’m ruining anything to tell you that the project does not work.

It was a quick shift of location to catch our final flick of the day, A Romanian film that won the big prize at Cannes. My expectations going in were pretty high, and while the movie was awfully damn good, it didn’t live up to what I had come to expect. The marketing nightmare — get such great buzz that the movie disappoints. Still and all, If you get a chance to see 4 months, 3 weeks, 2 days (off the top of my head, I can’t reproduce the Romanian title), do so. It’s dark, but compelling.

Looking back, we are still talking about yesterday’s Mister Lonely, despite the cinematic flood we’re experiencing. That’s gotta mean something.