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Showing posts from June, 2012

A picture, in a thousand words

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I like this photo.

The photographic process involves exposing a sheet of nitrocellulose coated in silver halide crystals to light. Where light strikes, the crystals convert to metallic silver. During the developing process, unconverted crystals are washed away, giving a photonegative image. This is then laid atop a sheet of paper treated in the same fashion and exposed to illumination again to produce a positive print. A black and white photo is literally a picture etched onto the page in grains of silver. People say photos are precious, but rarely do we think of them being elementally so.

Early photography required lengthy exposure times, to the point where a brace to hold the subject steady was standard equipment in a photographic studio. At the dawn of the 20th century, Eastman Kodak ushered in the era of the snapshot by releasing the Brownie box camera, which required only that one pointed it at the subject and pressed the shutter button. Candid and mock-candid photography quickl…

Further costume success!

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I tried on the full costume party getup last night. Apparently, David had some sort of mental disconnect between "my roommate is manufacturing a Poison Ivy costume" and "my roommate is going to put a Poison Ivy costume on her body and wear it". Sort of like when your sister says "I'm buying a new swimsuit" and you're thinking a Speedo one-piece racer and she's thinking an imported piece of Brazilian butt-floss.

I have no idea why he has this odd discontinuity. He knows what I look like, he's seen me in my pajamas, bathrobe, and occasionally wrapped in a spa towel, and he has been acquainted with my writing more than long enough to realize that no, I really don't have an issue wandering around all afternoon in a leotard and stiletto heels.

I am reminded of the time, many years ago, that my friends and I went to one of those nerd-tastic gaming conventions. It was in Phoenix in the middle of summer, and I despair of finding shorts that f…
I spend almost as much time being fascinated by people as I do trying to figure out why I'm fascinated by people. This has not been a lifelong thing for me. When I was a kid, in fact, I thought other people were incomprehensible, arbitrary, boring, and mostly mean. When I was a kid, they kind of were -- adults don't really bother to explain much to young children, and assume kids don't have eyes and ears and basic reasoning skills with which they can figure this stuff out partway for themselves. The other kids and I didn't have much to talk about, which in kid-speak translates to them picking on me for being weird.

[cut here for length and rambling]

Costume success!

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When people ask what I've been doing lately, I tell them I've been making rat costumes out of socks.
First, they say, "Wait, you're making rat costumes out of SOCKS?"
Then, they say, "Wait, you're making rat COSTUMES out of socks?"
Finally, they get to, "Wait, you're making RAT costumes out of socks?"
Nobody ever questions the Avengers part, oddly enough.
Since apparently I am just talking to myself with the Chaplin stuff, I jammed the rats into their superhero socks and took photos instead. Behold, the Rat-Vengers, Earth's Mightiest Rodents:
The NRCC has had a brilliant idea. They have set up a printer to spit out a page containing a message demanding the repeal of ObamaCare, "signed" electronically. One page per name. They have also set up a webcam to show these pages shuffling forth as they are being printed.

The page which receives names to automatically mail merge onto the printed sheets is on the internet. Like, right out there in front of God and everyone. Accessible to anyone with a browser.

Somehow, nobody thought there would be a problem with this.

The SomethingAwful goons have gotten a hold of it, and are pranking the fuck out of people stupid enough to rely on a sense of social obligation to make the internet treat this like Srs Biznis. Anne Frank is apparently quite the troll, as is Helen Keller. Tim Buckley's name ended up atop one of the piles to the side of the printer. They were unsurprised to discover that they couldn't get "Barack Obama" through, but they were rather angrier t…

Seventeen MINUTES of film this time

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Catalog and (relatively) brief analysis of all the random stuff I see when I go through footage.


"How To Make Movies" (1918)

Putting in a jump for once, because this is going to be ridiculously long.

Stage 6: Random ancillary academic treatises

I know a fair few of my readers are LGBT allies and/or queer culture critics, so I thought I'd have a go at covering this.

Chaplin gets a mention in a lot of early histories of queer cinema just for the fact that he was writing gags that turned on implied homosexuality back in the nineteen-teens, before such things were commonly committed to film. Then he gets another one for being one of the few writers who didn't end them all with someone asserting the status quo by beating the tar out of the sissyboy. There are dozens and dozens of these things that I still haven't seen, but the ones I've caught so far are based on the general principle of "humans do some damn stupid things sometimes" and not particularly any more disparaging or insulting than any of the gags based on people doing damn stupid heterosexual things, which are basically all of them.

One may ask if perhaps Chaplin decided to start writing these particular gags into his shorts in order to scanda…

Secondary interpretive sources!

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Chaplin (15th Anniversary Edition)

It's more than a little unnerving to watch an actor whose tells I've come to know pretty well play another actor whose tells I've come to know pretty well, and get it right. Particularly when the party of the first part is still having a lot of his infamous drug problems, and the party of the second part isn't around anymore to complain about anything they got wrong.
His kids were, though. Geraldine Chaplin, eldest daughter, played her own grandmother Hannah, and one of the sons was involved enough to interview for an early VHS extra. Apparently they started out going, "Well, I guess he looks a little like our father, sorta," and then by the time he came over the hill in full costume to film a scene with Geraldine, she caught her breath and went, "Oh dear God, it's Dad."
Downey's impersonation would be almost frightening if I didn't think he felt it was a genuine honor to have the part. Observe (embeddi…

More things worth watching

City Lights (1931)

Whether you thought Chaplin was a brilliant and dedicated artist or a complete sonuvabitch as a director seems to have depended heavily on whether you understood the perfectionism and worked with him, or didn't get it and just scrambled around working under him -- and on how personally you took an insistence on 342 takes of a single goddamn scene. He's surprisingly diplomatic about it in his book, but apparently he hired Virginia Cherrill (the flower girl) because she had a knack for acting blind, and then discovered too late that she just could not do anything else at fucking all. City Lights is one of the few pictures for which behind-the-scenes footage exists, DVD extras still being about six decades away. He looks like he's making a sincere effort not to actually lose his temper with the girl, which is something, at least. He was evidently not prone to directing the irascibility to anyone in particular, other than himself; the early crews at Keyston…

Stage 5: Make random observations until everyone tells me to shut up.

Chaplin never minded being categorized as a comedian. He didn't want to grow out of comedy; he wanted comedy to grow. Nor was he put out by being so closely identified with the tramp that made him famous. The character apparently has a name, which I didn't know; Chaplin refers to him in the book interchangeably as "the tramp" and "Charlot". Of course, Charlot is just the French equivalent of Charlie, which goes to show how much of him went into that in the first place.

He must have either been ambidextrous or one of the unfortunate left-handers whom the Victorians smacked into pretending to be right-handed. He writes, or at least mimes writing, with his right hand, but he plays the violin with the bow in his left. (He does play; I don't know what he's playing for the obvious reason that it's a silent short, but it's something coherent.) The tramp doesn't seem to wear a watch, unless it's needed for a gag, but in The Great Dictator, t…

Things worth watching

Mabel's Strange Predicament (1914)

The short for which Chaplin went rummaging around in the studio wardrobe and created the tramp's costume. The Mabel of the title is Mabel Normand, who was quite the movie star in her day; she specialized in madcap Keystone Kops-style comedies like this one, where she scampered around the set scandalously dressed only in her lounging pajamas. The tramp is not much of a hero here -- he lacks the romanticism and plucky altruism that characterizes him in later films. Chaplin has already got the walk, though, and a less fine-grained version of the mugging.


The Immigrant (1917)

By this time, Chaplin was writing and directing his own films as well as starring in them. They're all more or less the same thing, thematically; if you like the first few, then the rest are worth watching. The little tramp has by now become a sort of itinerant do-gooder, sticking up for the downtrodden and helping out a girl he's gone head-over-heels for even thoug…

Stage 4: Ponder.

Chaplin didn't publish his memoirs until 1964, when he would have been 75 years old. It took him a while; in the coda at the end, he makes reference to being on the sixth draft of the manuscript, and his poor secretary having to type the thing out time and again. There are a lot of things in that book that I don't think he could have published before the mid-1960s -- for context, in 1959, Errol Flynn's publishers were still carping endlessly over his, and flat refused to let him call it In Like Me. I don't think Chaplin would have published without them. He was not particularly good at taking direction, and one of the recurring motifs in his life was that whenever someone started telling him how he should run his project, he would say "Well, I guess you didn't really want me for this then, did you?" and then if they did it again he'd quit on the spot. In Hollywood especially, he had a tendency to blithely assume that he knew how to do things better th…

The difference between biographies and autobiographies

Whenever possible, I use both biographies and autobiographies when doing profiling. Their functions in the process are radically different. Biographies, ideally, contain facts. Mostly what you need to write a decent one is an interest, a lot of bloody-minded persistence, and a basic knowledge of stuff like municipal records and skip tracing. I find them very good at providing context, and almost useless for trying to crawl into someone else's head. I have seen some excellent ones that were written for very personal reasons, such as Andrew Hodges' biography of Alan Turing, but by and large the point of a biography is to gather things that are known and hard records of things that both the subject and other people said, not to editorialize. They are merely boxes in which the puzzle pieces are conveniently collected.

It should go without saying that I don't consider myself a very good biographer, particularly not when I'm doing this. I only do these things when I trip ove…

Stage 3: Every once in a while, surprise myself

I'm right about the shy thing. I spent the first twenty years of my life ignoring everything my brain threw up flags about, I should really know not to do that anymore.

I think I got about 30 pages into Chaplin's book before he starts talking about it himself. "Shy" is in fact the word he uses, although I'm not entirely sure it's the one I would. What it seems to have been was a positively enormous amount of inertia that had to be overcome before he could get his mouth to work sometimes, especially in public. It surfaced on the oddest of occasions -- he recounts his first trip back to England after his success in the States, and how, after finally getting a modicum of grip on the idea that huge cheering crowds were going to be meeting him everywhere he went, he slipped off to go see a girl he used to know and found that he was much too shy to get himself to go knock on the door and talk to her.

Beautiful women and famous people routinely reduced him to making…

A slight digression about verb tenses

You may notice that I do all these profile deals in the present tense, even now that I'm doing one that involves watching things that were committed to film at the dawn of the 20th century. I get called out for it from time to time, usually by someone confused who inquires politely as to whether I'm aware that my subject has done very little work for the past thirty-five years, on account of being somewhat dead.

As far as I can tell, this is an irreparable schism between how I think of people captured on media and how others do. I'm not sure I can make it make sense to anyone else. I think of recordings not as just collections of pixels and pitches, but as moments in time, uprooted and transplanted into a different section of the continuum. When you're on film, on disc, on paper, those moments that you spent on that creation are also impressed there. Your state of mind goes with you. There's a part of you there that never dies.

What I'm doing, when I do this, i…

Stage 2: Cram information frantically into brain

Iconic movie roles are not often as reflective of the actor as the Little Tramp is, mostly because the actor was also the writer, director and largely the cinematographer. Comedies tell you what the writer thinks is funny. When the premise depends on the audience's sympathy following the protagonist, as these do, they also tell you what qualities the writer thinks make a hero sympathetic.

The Tramp is neither stupid nor malicious. He's unlucky, inattentive, often naïve, and occasionally very drunk. At worst, he gets himself into trouble because his reach exceeds his grasp, particularly when it comes to pretty girls. He usually gets himself out of it by being clever, and faster than the guy chasing him. You just know that if these things were being made today, they'd come out closer to Dumb and Dumber than anything else.

A lot of the later films are wicked social satire -- actual satire, not whatever the hell Sacha Baron Cohen thinks he's doing. The Great Dictator pisse…

Stage 1: Hunt down EVERYTHING

I really ought to learn not to pick people who had 60+ year film careers for my research jags, if I ever intend on sleeping again.
Netflix has a load of Charlie Chaplin's early two-reel comedies on streaming. I watched one or two on YouTube first and had a think about it, then asked David what his first impression of Chaplin was. I knew damn well that mine wasn't normal, but I often have trouble working out how not-normal I'm being. Side-effect of being able to see everyone's not-normal, I suppose.

A physical comedian, is more or less what he said.
Ha. "The Rink" (1916)
The first thing I see is "perfectionist". Most of those gags involve pinpoint aim and precision timing. Off by half a beat, and you ruin the take, plus you might hurt someone. The second thing, surprisingly, is "dancer". Given the time frame, I would guess he learned in the English music halls, or American vaudeville. Most of the moments you consciously notice are when the…

Anatomy of a research binge

I've been raiding BPL for things to watch lately, and as it transpires, they have several copies of the 1992 film Chaplin.


This, I think, might be interesting. On a scale of "informative" to "meaningless fluff", biopics are usually closer to the latter than the former, particularly in cases where the subject is not alive to inform the writers that their first draft is a 'rubbish soap opera' and tell them to do it again, as Stephen Hawking did. The sine qua non of getting into someone else's head, of course, is an autobiography, and I love those -- even when the author is completely bonzo-doo-dah crazy they manage to tell you lots about themselves, although not always what they intended to when they wrote it down.

It's also very rare that I have any chance to compare the body language of the original to the actor. If someone decided to make a film about Dorothy L Sayers, I could assess pretty well whether any of what the actress spouts sounds lik…

The last real bastion of institutionalized sexism

Those of you who have been following along for a while may have noticed that the vast majority of my celebrity profiles are of men. And that the ones that do spotlight women are almost exclusively focused on very young women. There's actually a reason for this, and it has to do with the criteria by which I choose people to research.

The entertainment industry is one of the last holdouts when it comes to treating women like human beings. Traditionally, although there are a lot of women considered 'heavy hitters' because of the price they can charge for a project or public appearance, they are not generally taken very seriously as artists, or even as people. Their creative input is not typically solicited. I know of a good handful of actors who are notorious in the biz for ad libbing in front of the cameras and rewriting the shooting script whenever they think it needs improving, but I'm not aware of any actresses who do the same -- they may well be out there, but for so…
My flatmate the cosmologist (who will henceforth be known as "David Goldberg", because when I asked him what he wanted his alias to be his first concern was that it project the correct air of 'nice Jewish boy from Jersey' no I swear I cannot make this stuff up) is a bit of an odd duck. Enumerating all of the reasons I say this would take a mid-length novel, but the pertinent one right now is that he loves costume parties, and particularly loves throwing them for his birthday. I actually showed up about twelve hours before the last one -- literally, my plane landed at 5am and I ended up napping on the sofa after being driven out from the airport by a cheerful madwoman named Jazmin, because at that point, between packing and freaking out and flying and time changes, I had been awake for something between two and three days.

(If anyone is interested in the minutia of my life, I happened to have known said flatmate online before I moved out here, and when I called ahead …

"And here's Conrad the Weather Hamster with today's forecast..."

Since moving across the continent, I've had to re-learn how to interpret the weather service warnings. I spent the first eighteen years of my life living in a desert valley, and the next decade or so 7000ft up the lee-side of a mountain, so moving all the way out to the Atlantic coast was a big of a change.
It turns out that issuing these things is half computer prediction and half meteorological experience, i.e., some guy sticking his head out the window and remarking, "The last time it looked like this, our parking lot turned into a wading pool." I haven't got them all figured out yet, but I think I've decoded many of the major ones.
HIGH WIND WARNING
Phoenix: If you go outside, you'll end up with dust in places you didn't know you had.Flagstaff: If you go outside, you'll end up hanging onto random buildings to avoid being blown into the road.Boston: If you go outside, tie your hair back.
HIGH HEAT WARNING
Phoenix: Must be May.Flagstaff: Must be August…

Just for contrast

Just for shits and giggles, here's RDJ with a host he actually likes:

Doing press for Due Date. Which I haven't seen. No idea if it's any good.

Part of Ferguson's bit seems to be to maneuver people into saying embarrassing things by just stuttering and being abrasively Scottish at them until they can't wiggle out of it. (Note: Actual Scottish people are not like this any more than actual American people are obnoxious fucks who shout at foreigners. Which is to say, some are, but it's not the national hobby or anything.) This is absolutely not necessary with RDJ. If you give him a topic and let him talk long enough, sooner or later he will come up with a hilarious anecdote in which he comes out looking like a complete ass, and he will tell it loudly, at great length, and with a variety of illustrative hand gestures. Letterman leads with an innocuous question, which he could take in a few different directions -- he could go along with the puzzlement, for instance,…