Touched By The Bloody Hand

When we first walked out of Gibson's Apocalypto, my thinking was that real question with this film was: "Is it fatalistic or not?"

It seems most people's question was "Why was it so violent?" but I guess those people don't watch very many violent movies. Apocalypto isn't the gratuitous bloodbath everyone paints it as. Yes, people get their hearts cut out and their heads cut off, but the cutting happens for the most part off-screen. If you can't handle the heart-yoinking scene from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom then this MIGHT be too much for you. Otherwise, it's not that big a deal.

No, as I say, my concern was with the implied fatalism. A quick conversation with Steph was enough to reassure me that yes, the film does indeed posit a fatalistic view of life. The descent of civilization is prophesied, and comes true exactly as described, and there is not a thing anyone can do about it.

That's not in and of itself a bad thing. Well, not quite.

The problem with stories that put forward a fatalistic view (most allegories fall into this trap) is that once you as a viewer have realised that the story takes place in a world where fate holds sway, it becomes hard to engage much with the characters. We CARE most about characters who are doing something to affect the world, and in a fate-driven world, individuals can have no impact; they can only fulfill their role.

Because of course we want to believe that we live in a world where our choices matter, where the pains and trials we undergo have meaning and impact and value. And of course we are terrified that we don't. And so in the end, watching Apocalypto becomes an exercise in watching these poor saps who cannot turn aside from their destiny, and just feeling sorry for them. It sure does suck to be them. Yes sirree.

So how is this different from The Passion, Gibson's brilliant masterpiece? Isn't that fatalistic? Isn't Christ as fated to die on that cross as these Americans are to collapse under their own superstitious dread?

I wondered about this as I was washing the dishes.

Wash wash wash. Wonder wonder wonder.

But once I realised the difference, I understood immediately why The Passion is so moving and why Apocalypto, for all its glory and energy, is so flat.

Christ knows what's happening to him. He chooses his fate. The Christian story isn't a story about the working-out of some pre-ordained fate -- it's about a man choosing compassion and inner strength over fear and weakness. The story is so powerful partly because we're all up there, hanging from the crosses of our own lives and asking, "Why me? Why am I stuck here?"

And the answer it gives is: "Because you know it's the right thing to do. You didn't have to do this. You could have stepped aside. All you had to do was open your temples to the money-lenders, stone those who reminded you of your own failures, and join in driving out those who speak the unwelcome truth. If you would have put aside your conscience and your passion for honesty, all would have been so much easier. But you chose to do the right thing, to suffer for THEIR sins, to allow yourself to take on the burden of THEIR dishonesty and fear, and so you can just shut up and bleed, because you got nobody to blame but yourself. Because you knew it was the right thing to do."

Apocalypto can't even ask the question, let alone answer it. Which is too bad, because it is beautiful and horrible and full of tremendous performances. But it's mute beauty, silenced by its own fatalistic vision.

Modern Times

Well, Scratch Factory has gotten to the point where we're thinking of hauling in some of our spread-across-the-internet ventures. Today we've managed to get organized enough to host the Modern System Reference Document, the complete rules of Wizard of the Coast's d20 Modern game.

This document has been (and continues to be) hosted a couple of places online, and mad thanks to the gang at 12 To Midnight for being kind enough to do so in its very early stages. If you're looking to drop a dollar or two on RPG goodness, they've got some mighty fine work over there.

And obviously there's a debt owed to Wizards of the Coast for going ahead and releasing so many products under the Open Gaming License, and really changing the world of RPG publishing. It was a bold move, lo these many years ago, but the industry is healthier because of it.

Badassitude Revived

Nothing but good stuff today.

New Trailer for Grindhouse

As Steph said, "Holy Jesus Fuck."

Is there anything that could possibly be more amazing than that? I mean, it STARTS with a shot of Danny Trejo jumping a motorcycle with machine guns through an explosion, and manages to get COOLER!

I think Rodriguez is at his best paired with someone like Tarantino. On his own he tends to deliver messes like Once Upon A Time In Mexico or Spy Kids 2. But when there's someone there to keep him on track, his wild visual imagination really revs up the screen. And I don't know what to say about Tarantino. He's smart, he's honest and good grief he knows how story works.

Whether he's twisting it up in knots or just letting it play out simple and straightforward, he's got a so-far-unerring knack for it. No reason to think this won't be more of the same.

But wait! There's more!

The Hall of Badassitude

This is supremely brilliant and perfect example of the higher spiritual development the human race is steadily evolving towards. This site explains why Sho Nuff, Muhammad Ali, Australia and the B2 Bomber are totally badass, and it's not only hilarious, it actually gets kind of inspiring at times. The perfect way to spend an afternoon is to spend it reading about so many incredibly bad-ass people that you get inspired to be a little bad-ass yourself.

A couple of simple quotes to demonstrate:

Re: Australia

Even the plants are fucked up in Australia. Known only as "The Stinging Tree," this spawn of Satan looks deceptively innocuous. It's a mild-mannered-looking thing that's merely covered with tiny hairs. But the slightest touch of those hairs has been known to instantly kill rodents within a day, paralyze dingos and dogs, and cause excruciating pain (and yes, even death) to humans. I mean fuck, seeding the land with enormous reptilian carnivores and holocaustic insects is bad enough. But disguising certain agony and death as a little tree is truly a hallmark trait of sociopathic genius.

Then there's the Platypus. He deserves his own paragraph because of how much of a deceiver he is. He lulls you into complacency because his neurotoxic spurs don't directly kill humans most of the time. Don't be fooled; you'd beg for death. All human victims of Platypus stings suffer immediate hyperalgesia (clinical hypersensitivity to any sensation of pain) for weeks or even months after the sting! That's Australia's way of saying "don't fuck with me, asshole, or I'll send a Salt Water Crocodile to fuck you up and shove Box Jellyfish up your urethra while force-feeding your wife eucalyptus leaves. That'll teach you not to use the word "crikey" in a pejorative context. Fuck-ass."

Australia is a psychotic, cold-blooded murderer that would swallow you whole if you so much as left the front door of your house (and this is assuming that your Sydney Funnel Web barricades are in working order). Whoever thought up the concept of Australia was inflicted with the madness of Nietzsche and the megalomania of Qin Shi Huangdi. And you know what? Genocidal, rampaging hellholes bent on exterminating all life on Earth are truly badass.

And the movie Starship Troopers:

Space marines are just awesome. I'm pretty sure it's impossible to make a movie about any kind of marines and have them not rock ass. I mean, even Imperial Stormtroopers are cool and all they did was bump into each other and fire their blasters in the wrong direction for three consecutive films.

I had previously thought that we were lacking in badassitude. I'm glad to be corrected.

Why Music TV Sucks

Because they don't play shit like this:

The Amateur

(thanks, JAmes!)

Or this:

Algorithim March! (with ninjas)

(thanks, Yosem!)


The Automatons are upon us!

A number of reasons why this movie is incredibly cool:

1. It's called Automatons
2. It's by a company called Monsterpants Movies
3. Robots get their mechanical heads BLOWN THE FUCK OFF:

4. The filmmakers registered and used the URL "". Honestly, I'm kind of surprised it was available.

See? Technology is benign. Computers love you. And they help you make crazy beautiful movies about how computers and robots will bring about the end of the world. This can only be good.

Aren't you glad you live in a world where a kid with this sort of shit in his head can nowadays go out and actually FILM it? Forget about the flying cars, man. I'm living in the future.

All this courtesy of DISContent, the most righteous pulp cinema blog of our times.

Made Out Of Meat

More from Mike Thorpe, Application Analyst

Pretty Golden Flower

Sometimes, pretty is not enough.

Despite the tremendous beauty of his films, Zhang Yimou has NOT proven himself as an action-film director to us yet. Raise the Red Lantern is a tremendous (if melodramatic) film, but both Hero and House of Flying Daggers failed to deliver real stomp-down action scene goods. Neither live up to the standards of films like King Boxer or The Magic Sword, that's for sure. Nor do they carry the wild abandon of Swordsman II or Dragon Inn.

But they are very, very pretty. And The Curse of the Golden Flower looks to continue that tradition, at the very least. And thank heavens Yimou has gotten past his Zhang Zhiyi infatuation. Seriously, Yimou, she's just not that good. Going back to Gong Li makes us love you more.

The trailers are starting to intrigue me. Ninja-rappelling always works for me, and Chow Yun-Fat in Tang Dynasty dress is a hoot. Since it seems not so much a kung-fu movie and more of a war movie, maybe Yimou's stately style will be more suitably showcased. Nothing's ever certain, of course. But Gong Li took that piece of crap Miami Vice and made it her own -- which I found kind of disorienting, since I always think of Miami Vice as being about Crockett and Tubbs, but hey, I'm happy to watch Gong Li out-act everyone else in the picture. And she wasn't showing off nearly as much cleavage there as she is here.

If you're going to make a pretty movie (which clearly you are, if you're Zhang Yimou), starting off by putting Gong Li in front of your camera is a good way to start. Yimou's problem for the last few films has been finding a story that DESERVES the level of prettiness he's giving it. And casting Zhang Zhiyi. Seriously, dude, what were you thinking? But anyways, in storytelling you have to EARN the qualities of your story that you emphasize. If you write it in verse, you'd better not only write good verse, you better be telling a story that NEEDS verse for its telling. Hero and House of Flying Daggers both lacked much weight to them -- even though they purportedly told stories of great significance. But the thing is, you have to earn your significance, too. You can't just say, "This is the story of how China was formed," and expect your audience to go, "Okay, then. We'll make sure to be very worked up about all this." You have to get them worked up about it through your storytelling. The story of how China was formed can be either exciting or painfully tedious, depending on the telling.

So while it's nice he makes such very pretty films (and they really are very, very pretty), what's the point? Well, in a couple of weeks the Golden Flower unfolds, so we'll see where Zhang Yimou has gotten to, and where he's able to take Gong Li and Chow Yun-Fat. But he'd better tell a story that deserves all that prettiness.

6573401 Letters

Sorry I've let this little saga slide. I DID send a letter to Mr. McKee, listed as the owner of 6573401 Canada Inc., at least a month ago now. Letters contents follow:

Dear Mr. McKee:

I am writing to you in your capacity as the owner of 6573401 Canada Inc., about which I have some questions.

I am a shareholder in Some Company, Limited. As such, I received your offer to purchase my shares. I was interested, but not sufficiently to accept the offer, as you may be aware. But I have become ever-more curious about the nature and intentions of 6573401 Canada Inc..

What can you tell me about your company? What are your intentions with respect to ownership of Some Company? What other companies to possess shares in? What sort of objectives do you have, business-wise?

I would appreciate any information you can provide me. Thanks!

I received a response from 6573401 Canada Inc.! With Mr. McKee's name at the bottom. He appears to be a lawyer (there's a surprise). The letter states (in part):

As you know, 6573401 Canada Inc. (the "Buyer") made a written offer (the "Offer") dated May 2006 to acquire all the issued and outstanding shares of Some Company, Ltd. ("Some Company") from Some Company's shareholders. the Buyer completed the acquisition of all the issued and incredibly complicated terminology that I can't be bothered to type, but apparently means that some OTHER company ("Company Not Issued With A Special Title") has my few pennies.

So I wrote back, asking about CNIWAST, and was told to do the following:

In brief, you must deliver the following materials to CNIWAST's office in Vancouver, BC:

- share certificates representing your Some Company shares (or, where you have lost those shares, an affidavit of loss and a bond of indemnity in the form accompanying the Offer); and
- a letter of transmittal in the form accompanying the Offer.

Not at all sure what a "letter of transmittal" (the "Letter of Transmittal") is. But I will continue to investigate. The truth is out there! I want to believe!

Prehistoric AWESOME Times!

Mike Thorpe, Application Analyst, in an obvious effort to score points, dropped the latest issue of the greatest magazine in the world on my desk.

"Prehistoric Times" Issue #79! How did I miss the first 78? Good grief.

Anyway, as awesome as the cover is, the awesome increases on the inside. Reviews (Reviews!) of dinosaur parks! Ads for scale model dinosaurs! Reader art!

Reader art! And their readers are, like, sculptors and painters and shit, so it's AWESOME.

And ads for Dinosaur Wallpaper! Dinosaur Models! Dinosaur Finding Tools!

I defy you to find a better value for your dinosaur magazine dollar. This is what dinosaur magazines ought to be. This is why God invented dinosaurs in the first place. I mean, aside from confusing the whole evolution issue, there. THIS is what dinosaurs are all about: selling cool products. If you don't subscribe to this magazine right now, you are against LIFE.

It may have been an obvious effort, but it certainly succeeded.

Blue, Blue, Electric Blue

Anne Carson is a very great poet. And sometimes (more often than I always expect) she is very, very funny. This poem from The Believer makes me laugh.


(PAESTUM 500-453 BC)

First detail

Above, the blue arm ballet sparkling its way from stranger to
stranger on a luck of clouds.
Below —


What verb to.
Such as leap into water.
Such as ravish her and want to.

Through with love she sings Naked except for a.

Second detail

“swimming at noon always reminds me of Marilyn Monroe”

Etruscan saying

The Etruscans: Are you blue, Marilyn?
Marilyn:                A little blue.
The Etruscans: What do you do when you’re blue?
Marilyn:                Go underwater.
The Etruscans: Why?
Marilyn:                 Slow world, I like that.
The Etruscans: Slow bodies?
Marilyn:                 Bodies pulled around by faces.
The Etruscans: Diverse faces (sorry!)
Marilyn:                 Actually, all the same face.
The Etruscans: Frightening? Seductive?
Marilyn:                 No, beautiful.
The Etruscans: Odd sort of beauty.
Marilyn:                 Like a new brassiere.
The Etruscans: Or a very usual verb.
Marilyn:                 What?
The Etruscans: For instance the verb ‘is’.
Marilyn:                 I didn’t know ‘is’ was a verb.
The Etruscans: What did you think it was?
Marilyn:                 A light for the other verbs.
The Etruscans: In written Etruscan it’s the only verb we have.
Marilyn:                 You’re kidding.
The Etruscans: Is, was, has been, had been, will be, might be, should be, to be, to have been, to be about to have been, being, being about to be. And of course the negatives of these.
Marilyn:                 How do you get married or go to the beach?
The Etruscans: We do such things, just don’t write about them.
Marilyn:                 No novels, no screenplays?
The Etruscans: No literature.
Marilyn:                 Why bother writing at all then?
The Etruscans: It is needed on tombstones.
Marilyn:                 Oh I see.
The Etruscans: Now there’s a slow world.
Marilyn:                  You got that right.
The Etruscans: Now you’re sad again.
Marilyn:                 No just thinking. My pain self etc.
The Etruscans: Les choses derrière les choses.
Marilyn:                 I guess.
The Etruscans: Getting colder now.
Marilyn:                  Time to go in.
The Etruscans: And tomorrow?
Marilyn:                  Tomorrow will certainly be.
The Etruscans: You are very funny.
Marilyn:                 So I’m told. 

Thoughts on Ashoka

I don't normally try to push my causes on others, but I've been watching and listening to and talking with the folks at Ashoka for over a year now, and I'm convinced that they're the real thing. They call themselves "social entrepreneurs" and "innovators for the public". Their notion is that the ideas of entrepreneurship are ready now to be transformed into the social sector (actually, this is a process that's been going on for some time, according to them), and so similar sorts of fostering that we've seen in the private sector (funding start-ups, rewarding individual effort) will help get things going in the public.

I admire and agree with the notion of fostering rather than dictating change: Ashoka does not try to set policies; instead, they help local citizens implement change as they think their neighborhoods require. By putting people all over the world in touch with each other, and providing training and in some cases funding to those entreprenuers that are trying to change their societies, they believe they can transform the world.

Easy to be cynical about. And maybe they're wrong. But read their founder's most recent statement and see if you can maintain your cynicism:

"The most important contribution any of us can make now is not to solve any particular problem, no matter how urgent energy or environment or financial regulation is. What we must do now is increase the proportion of humans who know that they can cause change. And who, like smart white blood cells coursing through society, will stop with pleasure whenever they see that something is stuck or that an opportunity is ripe to be seized. Multiplying society’s capacity to adapt and change intelligently and constructively and building the necessary underlying cocollaborative architecture, is the world’s most critical opportunity now."

There's plenty of ways to get involved with this crew -- one of their services is linking available volunteers to needy projects. Like any not-for-profit group, they need donations (Ashoka does not accept funding from government agencies). But really, just reading about what they're doing and what's happening all over the world is enough to get you thinking.

And thinking about it, while it's no substitute for action, is at least the first step.

Dream of Happyness

Leading into the rather good Casino Royale, we were treated to a number of movie previews. There was The Pursuit of Happyness, We Are Marshall, and Dreamgirls. A tearjerker cute-kid-plus-down-and-out-but-trying-hard-dad film, a college sports movie and a biopic on the Supremes.

No shortage of difference there. But somehow, watching the trailers, these all looked like the same film, just told with different window dressings. And that film is really a piece of propaganda, and a particularly pernicious form thereof. The message of all three films, at least as expressed by the trailer, was "If you believe in your dream strongly enough, if you don't allow anything ti distract you from your dream, you can realise it."

Besides the fact that this ignores the universe's total lack of concern with an individual's attitude towards what they do, this evil little bit of P.T. Barnum hucksterism inflicts a sort of cruelty even towards people who ARE successful: it requires people to HAVE a dream in the first place.

I don't think I have a dream. I don't think I've ever had a dream. Once upon a time I wanted to be a writer. Then I grew up and discovered that being a writer was a more complicated issue than I'd thought. So I guess I am a writer, or I'm not writer, depending on how one chooses to define "writer". But in any event, "being a writer" is either stupidly trivial to accomplish (I write, therefore I am a writer) or so dependent on other people's opinions that my efforts, no matter how Herculean, aren't sufficient to ensure my success (getting published).

And I think I count as a pretty single-minded sort of guy. I can remember folks telling ME that they wished they had a dream like I do, because then their lives would be so much simpler. For most people in the world, sticking to their guns and seeing their dreams through isn't the tough part; the tough part is CHOOSING a dream in the first place. And because most people live in the real world, it isn't even feasible or responsible for them to just pick one thing and put all their effort into making it happen -- they have to juggle all sorts of needs and responsibilities in their everyday life. Why tell people that if they only had ONE desire, and put all else aside, they'd succeed? That just seems unecessarily cruel.

Or at least simple-minded.

Life is complex and sophisticated, and story-telling like this tries to pretend it isn't. It makes you feel like you're being inspired, when in fact you're being encouraged to do nothing substantive -- you're being told that step one is HAVING A DREAM. So those of you without dreams are perfectly justified in sitting around doing nothing until your dream arrives. Or forced to fret and worry because, unlike these heroes, you don't have a dream you feel like you can commit to and give everything to. Which offends me, because I don't think it's very healthy to obsess over ONE THING anyway. I prefer to embrace -- even savour -- the complexity of my life. That I don't know what I'm doing from one day to the next. Sure, there are some landmarks I try to steer by, and some stops along the way I'm looking forward to, but honestly, I'm not trying to accomplish anything other than just... have fun. Be happy. Get a few laughs.

That sounds shallow, but I don't think it is. In one of Dr. Suzuki's books (no, not that Suzuki, the other one) he talks about recognizing wisdom, and how our need for wisdom to come packaged in ancient tomes, or on misty mountaintops, or couched in complex, difficult language, is really a manifestation of pride. Of seeing ourselves as SO WONDERFUL that the only wisdom worthy of our attention is that which has been dressed up and made to look significant, just to please our own egos. When in fact, if I'm being humble (which I almost never am, but I do try), there's wisdom to be found on all sides of me, if only I will let go of that pride that insists I need more.

But it's hard to make a melodramatic trailer about... um... noticing shit. So I get it. But it's not MY Dream of Happyness.

Hot or Not?

I'm not sure what I think of Nabaztag. It's either one of the coolest ideas EVER, or it's completely stupid. I don't think there can be much middle ground with this thing.

But it points in a certain direction -- simple connectivity. Most devices that provide connectivity nowadays do so through a complex interface that requires substantial training and expertise to use. Nabaztag seems to let you be a lot more casual and still take advantage of high-tech possibilities. I'm sure there's some more or less complicated setup involved (picking sources for the little guy and configuring it, etc), but I think I get the idea and it looks pretty simple to use.

And I think the IDEA at least is killer -- a little guy that's plugged in so you don't have to be. Interesting how the world seems to be moving AWAY from the 80's cyberpunk vision of eternal connectedness -- even as connectedness become ubiquitous. If Nabaztag isn't the wave of the future, it's at least a reasonable look at the prevailing winds.


You Are In Love

Saw Brotherhood of the Wolf at the Festival here a few years back. Liked it okay -- painfully overcut, but otherwise some good stuff. Some time later Steph said, "Hey, remember that Italian actress from Brotherhood? The prostitute? She was really good -- she was in another movie, Tears of the Sun. Let's check it out."

Of course the woman in question is the actress Monica Bellucci, and is only one of an endless line of amazing actors that Steph has managed to pick out of the crowd and alert us to before we even know who they are. We have a whole "stable" of actors that she's identified as worth keeping tabs on. Sometimes we end up watching great actors in not-so-great movies (Tears of the Sun, say), but it's always thrilling watching somebody live up to the potential you see in them and deliver spectacular performances.

Now ordinarily I prefer subtitles to dubbing, since voice acting is if anything harder than normal acting, but Blaine's copy of Brotherhood doesn't include subtitles, so we watched it in English. And discovered that many of the actors did their own English dubs (since they're European and thus speak thirty languages) -- including Monica. So I grabbed a bunch of choice utterances, scrambled them up with a little Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass ("Green Peppers" from Whipped Cream and Other Delights), added a solid base of GarageBand loops and voila!

You Are In Love (We're Not Married)

Learned a lot listening carefully to Dmitri From Paris, Towa Tei and Coldcut on a recent trip to TO. It may not show, but I swear I learned it! I got more help from Steph, of course, than I did from any of them.

I Don't Like You Anyway

Bran Van 3000's album "Discosis" captivated me from the first moment I heard it, in a record store in Kyoto as Steph and I awaited our train back to Tokyo. I had no notion of BV3G as anything other than the one-hit wonder of "Drinking In LA", a tune I'd liked well enough back in the day but never really gave another thought to after its moment (it's really the "Life In A Northern Town" of 2000).

It remains one of my favourite albums, as much for its confusing jumble of themes and styles and genres (not to mention languages) as for the crisp muscianship and imaginative production. Sounds and voices come in and out, sudden and sharp or soft and gently announcing themselves. The whole album gives off an impenetrable aura of dreaminess, and I think that dreams and mystery are at the heart of this light-hearted but serious offering.

"It's so predictable to want to be so beautiful..."

What kind of music is this: electric beats and wistful acoustic guitars, overwrought diva vocals alongside freestyle rapping, spoken word tales that rewind and wrap around themselves, revealing a core of nothing but nonsense crafted from self-reference and wordplay.

But there's a running vein of ore under all the strangeness, a constant cautious exploration of dreams. Kermit the Frog flips off angry drivers while daydreaming of turning a traffic jam into a block party. A suburban girl's dreams of rock and roll trigger a cultural overload. A cultured fellow sends a message to a luscious actress which becomes a strange reversal of roles.

"I really can't recall who I was meant to be that day,
I'm an actress; I play so many roles.
But the script required Miss G,
that's who I was meant to be,
and I was just about to pick out the clothes
(when my crumpled paper ball
hit the floor beside you, it made no sense at all)"

Dreams of speed, of sex, of love, of transcendence. Transcending one's own identity, as the actress does (and ultimately her customer).

"Who do you want me to be?
Who do I want to be?
Who do you want me to be?
Fucking loaded."

The title, Discosis, suggests a play on psychological terminology, so maybe I'm not so far off here. Maybe the constant shifts and eruptions in the music reflect the constant stir and boil of our minds, where memories collide and come bubbling unexpected to the surface.

"One day God walked on old Mount Royal, just to dream of the human form,
through stones and cans and comic books in a kettle,
then you came out like a shining goddess of heavy metal.
It's too bad some hearts just don't settle,
and the pipes are leaking and you feel like leaving,
Yeah we've heard this one before.
Dear God, buddy, now don't you meddle,
cause I got my own twisted ways of showing you
that I do, yes I do, I love you in my own twisted way."

Strange stories like this litter the album, drifting along without seeming to resolve properly, transforming themselves from one tale to another. The way the songs reinvent themselves as they go on reflects the constant expressions of change, of the need for change and the desire through self-change to effect self-assertion.

"Do what you want to make the fuckers pay, don't waste your time and sleep your life away; I always meant to tell you I don't like you anyway..."


Lovecraft suggested that non-Euclidian geometry would drive human brains mad; that confronting realities other than the ONE reality we think we are familiar with would be such a shattering moment that our minds would never recover. His fiction, and the interminable repetition it has suffered at the hands of less-imaginative writers over the years since, works over this theme again and again, and non-Euclidian geometry gets brought numerous times as an example of that sort of mind-shattering alteration to reality.

Things We Were Not Meant To Know.

But non-Euclidian geometry has, so far, driven remarkably few people mad. It turns out that alternate models of reality are not only comprehensible; they're immensely useful.

For non-mathematicians of Lovecraft's time, the early 1900's might well have been around the time when non-Euclidian geometry was first getting considered and talked about, and no doubt there was plenty of confusion as to what it really was and what it meant. The first forms were discovered only in 1823, so it's not crazy that 80 years later it was hitting the non-expert populace.

(basically non-Euclidian geometry is geometry that defines "parallel" differently than what we normally think of as parallel. Sort of. Not a mathematician, over here. Go look it up if you want to know.)

It turned out to be far less shattering than people feared -- no more so than alternate number systems such as irrationals or worse imaginary numbers. It turns out that people are actually pretty good at holding simultaneously contradictory models of the world in their head. Which, when you think about it, is a pretty important skill to possess. That's what any artist or any craftsman does when they create. They imagine a world different from this one, a world in which their novel or server or toothbrush exists, and they act in order to transform the current world into the imagined world.

I recently re-read Douglas Hofstadter's landmark Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid, and while deep in exploring Godelian gymnastics I realised again how critical MODELS are to our ways of thinking and seeing. It is the models by which I organize my perceptions that determine my reality -- as I change those models, I change the very world around me. Not to get all freaky and strung-out-60's-ish about it -- but it really is sobering to realise how many of the "facts" by which I guide my own decision-making are in fact models that I've generated about the world.

In response to statements like these (model = reality) people bring up physical issues ("Changing your models won't allow you to walk through walls"), which is fair enough, but you know, not many of the difficult decisions in my life have to do with physical issues. The TOUGH decisions in my life are always about how to handle or communicate with the folks in my life -- and in that arena my models really ARE of critical importance. And having multiple models that I can switch between is as immensely helpful to me as non-Euclidian geometry to assorted mathematicians.

Both Euclidian and non-Euclidian geometries are TRUE. Both describe the world accurately, depending on what aspects of the world I want to model. But the real power is not in using one or the other -- it's the ability to use BOTH, to hold them both in my mind simultaneously, that opens me up to honest, sincere change in myself and my world.

Now the models I use in my head are not easily available for my own review -- I can't print them out in a meaningful way. But I clearly can examine them, even if only incompletely, and I think it's reasonable to assert that I can also examine models that I DON'T use. In a way, that's what I do when I try to understand another person -- I'm trying to comprehend how their model works, so that I can compare it with those of mine that I'm aware of and decide if it offers any advantages.

And I don't go insane when I do. But I think Lovecraft touched on a very real fear of us all -- that by opening ourselves to possibilities, to models other than those that we're already comfortable with, we will imperil that deepest sense of ourselves. We cling to our models, and reject new ones out of hand, because we are afraid that we risk our identity. I know that when I react defensively, as I do so often when someone tries to present a model unfamiliar to me, or one that seems to conflict with ones I have already invested my pride and self-worth in, what I'm really doing is fighting to maintain my erroneous notion that my models are actually my reality. I'm pretending that if I consider alternatives, I will diminish myself, or maybe lose control of myself. When in fact, practicing my ability to hold multiple models simultaneously is really the strongest, most human thing I can do.

H.P. Lovecraft is wrong. Having your mind shattered is a GOOD thing.

Creepy and Beautiful

A wonderful example of how profoundly effective simple techniques, applied with imagination and artistry, can really be. Sophistication lies in perception and the ability to use "telling details" to make the story come alive.

Or, as in this case, to kind of fascinate, turn the stomach and widen the eyes with amazement all at the same time. Run Wrake (apparently the director) is to be praised for creating this weird and wonderful little visual fable.

Musings: Stories of the Tribe

This is something that's been brewing in my head for quite a while; I've finally got some time here to jot down my ongoing notions and see what comes of them.

I've been reading Harold Bloom (and he's a clever clog, no doubt) and considering the progress of humanity (something I do every Wednesday from 7 to 9) and one thing has occurred to me:

We (the human race, that is) have gotten better at lots of things over the record of civilizations. We run faster. We build higher building. We communicate more readily with folks around the world. We're taller (some of us). We're healthier (again, some of us). We live longer (on average, all of us). There's more of us.

Progress, ah, progress, it is a mighty thing. Enough to make you believe in destiny, in fate, in the eventual triumph of all our dreams.

But it occurs to me (and this ties into Hofstadter again) that there are also things we demonstratably HAVEN'T gotten any better at.

Telling stories.

In the 500 years since Shakespeare wrote, we haven't improved on his storytelling. Not in any consistent manner, at least. And before Shakespeare, it's pretty hard to demonstrate an ongoing and consistent line of improvement from Homer to the Bard. For all the things we do get better at year in and year out (building houses, making cars go faster, airplanes fly higher), it's striking how we are completely unable to get better at telling stories.

This isn't a rave-up for Shakespeare; substitute any names in there and the case remains. Even the most ardent post-modernist is going to have trouble showing how story-telling has gotten consistently better and better over the centuries.

How can this be? After all, we have all those centuries of experience behind us. Surely we can look back and learn lessons that Elizabethan dramatists never had the opportunity to. Surely the combined weight of all those wonderful story-tellers over the ages must combine somehow, as in science, to provide us with superior insights and tools and techniques. But no. Why not? Why is story-telling something that each generation must learn again?

In 500 years, how is it possible we haven't gotten any better at this? Heck, if you like The Iliad (which I do), we haven't noticeably improved in 3000 years.

And yet we understand human nature so much better. We understand the causes of our fears and anxieties, our obsessions and our passions to a degree far beyond what Homer or Dante or Shakespeare could possibly have done. We have reams of research on what makes people tick, on how they respond to danger or anger or frustration, that we ought to be better than they. We know so much more than they.

And yet, we don't tell stories any better than they.

We are story-telling animals. What makes us what we are is the set of stories we tell. Stories of ourselves. Of our ancestors, our tribe, our universe. By changing our stories, picking up new ones, forgetting old ones, adjusting the details, we change ourselves.

Yesterday was Remembrance Day. A day for telling stories. Stories of a nation's sacrifice. Of battles won and lost, of valour shown and young lives cut down. A nation must have its stories. Say to a Canadian: "Vimy Ridge, Flanders Fields, Dieppe, Juno" and a whole host of tales emerges, tales that define us as a nation. Without those stories and many more besides, what would link us to one another? We are Canadian because we share Canadian stories with each other.

This is how we form group identities -- through shared story-telling. With our families, our friends, classmates, co-workers -- any "tribe" exists in order to perpetuate its tales, the stories that evoke and its identity.

And yet we never get better at it. How is this possible? What does it mean?

I think that if there is such a thing as a soul, it lies right near this strange little bit of country. If there really is an irreducible part of each human being, something that is only theirs and cannot be further broken down into its constituent elements, cannot be reproduced or simulated, it is this. It is the stories we tell.

Will an artificial sentience tell stories? If it doesn't, is it sentient?

Whatever strange forms life may take in other parts of this strange universe, if it doesn't tell stories somehow, someway, I don't see how we can consider it sentient.

But if it does, and we learn to hear and share in its stories, perhaps then we will finally get better at this.

The Very Heart of the World

Steph's brother Steve passed this over to us. It is most definitely the coolest thing I've seen in some time. Six minutes of insane brilliance from Guy Maddin.

Guy Maddin = unbelievably cool

You Can't Go Back

Dino-Pirates of Ninja Island

Once you've opened the Dino-Pirate door and peeked inside, there's just no turning back. So I have learned, and I pass my tragic lesson on to the rest of you as a public service -- do NOT bite off the Dino-Pirate mouthful unless you're prepared to spend some time there, because it won't bloody let you go.

I am well-invested in running an Iron Kingdoms game. I've bought numerous (incredibly gorgeous) hardcover books detailing the world. Rules. Monsters. Spectacular illustrations. The COOLEST commercially available setting I've ever seen -- the only one cool enough to make me buy it.

But I can't. Steph started me thinking about it, and she's right. Damn her.

So instead of that substantial investment paying off in nights of gaming joy, I find myself compelled to run a Dino-Pirates of Ninja Island campaign. I can't get it out of my head.

It was never supposed to be a full-fledged campaign, damnit. It was supposed to be a goofy one-off, good for a night's gaming. And now it lurches into life, moaning and chuckling to itself. And I can't let go of my own Frankenstein monster. I hope the good, incredibly talented folks at Privateer Press aren't offended.

I blame you, JPL. I blame you very much indeed.

Flying Babies!

Today, a blast from the past: a scene from The Wrong Apartment, a film we did eight years ago (can it really have been that long?).

First, the notion: we wanted to do a "reimagining" of the "Odessa Steps" sequence from The Untouchables, only with an elevator instead of a staircase (mainly because the staircases in the building were not suitable for that sort of thing). The thinking and crazy idea-making that came up around that idea led to what you see here:

Obviously we're limited by not having guns or squibs, but we did have a lot of fun. Note that the scene more or less follows the three-act structure John Rogers has noted as required for an action scene: the opening that establishes the problem, introduction of complicating element (baby carriage), and then resolves itself through that element (flying baby).

Honestly, if we'd had squibs and blanks, I wouldn't change much about this sequence.

Film Fest 2006: Post 5

Okay, the final round:


It's pretty cool that monks in friggin' Bhutan can make movies with modern digital effects. Apparently Bhutanese sorcerers are pretty bad-ass -- in this film we see an entire village consumed in lightning and earthquakes. Nasty. Milarepa, our erstwhile hero, is sent by his grieving mother on a mission of revenge, and you just know that's not going to end well. No sir.

Great performances and jaw-dropping scenery make for a good time; this film manages to be both exotic and universal in its tone. Old women bewailing the uncaring world and young men discovering that sometimes violence hurts -- anyone gets that sort of thing. But the monasteries perched on top of windswept peaks (no digital effects here), mysterious rituals and strange powers, this is right out of The Man Who Would Be King. Only cooler.

By the director of The Cup, so this is a likely DVD release. Watch for it.


Steph and I are suckers for turn-of-the-century St. Petersburg. Alexei Balabanov's Of Freaks and Men was really just the beginning. This film, Garpastum, follows the fates of two young lads determined to build a soccer stadium. The film kind of floats along, dreamy and almost directionless, but you can sense the forthcoming horror right from the get got. It helps that, the film being situated in 1914, you know that history at least has no shortage of horrors in store.

The climax is startling, horrifying and thorough.

The Russians, like the Japanese, never seem to stop turning out little masterpieces of cinema like this. Of all the films at the festival, I think this one has stayed with me the most. Worth seeing, worth thinking about.

When The Road Bends

You know, when you're making a film about amazing musicians, I'd think you turn on the camera, let them play, and at some point, roll credits. What more needs to be done? But both this and the far superior The Sound of the Soul fail to do that. They'll start on a song, and then we have to cut to this, or to that, or whatever.

Well, the Rom musicians in When The Road Bends are pretty awesome, so you forgive the film its foibles. I guess the very-charming director (who when we got up to leave seemed to think we were spontaneously leaping to our feet to congratulate her, and I hope she wasn't too offended when we just smiled and said "Thanks" and kept on going right out the door) just couldn't keep from inserting her "directorial voice" into the picture.

It isn't really that bad. The Indians are so hilarious and the Macedonian woman blows out every hall they play in, the old Romanian guy mists you right up with his attitude ("I'm going to build a pool just like Johnny Depp"), and it's over before you know it. If you like music, you'll like this. Will probably get a DVD release.

Le Petit Lieutenant

This year, the festival seemed to save the best for last. This film is damn near perfect. While Jalil Lespert's young title character draws you into the film's early stretches, it's Nathalie Baye's Vaudieu who ends up driving the film. One of those rare films where halfway in you realise you have no idea how this is all going to play out. No histrionics, no sentimentality, just a straightforward cop movie that leaves you feeling satisfied but vaguely unsettled. The closing shot, and its echo of Truffaut's The 400 Blows invites all manner of contemplation on growing and growing old.

A spectacular film, sure to be transformed into English as soon as someone in Hollywood figures out how to switch the seasoned Vaudieu for some anorexic nineteen-year-old. You'll want to see this one first.

And THAT is the festival for this year. We saw a lot of films, but had to pass over so many. Certainly hope to see many of these films on DVD releases, and some of them theatrically, in months to come.

Film Fest 2006: Post 4

More, more, still more

The Lost Hum

The creative brains behind last year's The Soup One Morning return with this nasty little tale, brilliantly conceived and executed. One of those shot-on-video productions that is BETTER for its limitations; shooting this on film would only reduce the impact. I don't think it's too much to say that Hirosue and Takahashi are inventing a new kind of cinema. Their understanding of what they are doing, their fearless approach to low-budget storytelling and their unflinching eye give their films an entirely original feel. It's almost anti-cinema: the lack of spectacle and narrative energy becomes absorbing in itself. You watch, compelled as it were by the ABSENCE of what you expect in film.

I don't quite know what to make of this film, to tell you the truth, other than that I loved it and will never forget it. Very highly recommended.

The Lives of Others

Inexplicably, this film won for Most Popular Film at the festival this year. Make no mistake: it's tripe. Sentimental and demeaning to its subject matter, this film is a poorly-veiled apology for state oppression.

Where The Page Turner used Hitchcockian means to original and thrilling purpose, this film plods along in its sententious fashion, invoking one cliche after another, milking its trivial little moments for far more than they're worth, and ultimately building up to a sappy ending that does nothing to dispel the unsavoury nature of the film's subject matter (State Security in East Germany).

Don't listen to the masses in this case. The Lives of Others isn't worth your time.

The Riddle

There is clearly insufficient Bollywood in my life, but bless the organizers of this year's festival that they sought to correct that gap with this puff pastry of a film.

Is there such a thing as too many gorgeous Indian women dancing to bubbly rhythms? I can't imagine, and The Riddle certainly does take a stab at overloading one. This is one damn cheerful film. You could have sawed off my right arm and I'd still be tapping my toes and drumming my fingers (at least, on my left hand). Serious cheer.

People who aren't happy when they walk out of this film are DEAD.

Sure, there's a plot and stuff. Things happen. Shah Rukh Khan is charming. Rani Mukherjee is gorgeous and everyone sings and dances. Usually with ginormous grins on their faces the whole time.

Just THINKING about this movie is making me smile.

Heaven's Doors

Interesting noir from Morocco. Young kids run afoul of necessity, and mothers and sons all suffer. It's too long, and the unfortunate actress playing the French art professor started to grate with the ceaseless whining the script demanded of her, but the ending is solid and the construction of the film lends itself to contemplations of all sorts.

It's really a triptych, but one in which certain figures appear again and again, each time in a different context -- as a rival, a relative, a burden. Washed-out images and blurry camerawork reveal rather than confuse, and two powerful performances from Rabie Kati and Hakim Noury anchor the beginning and the ending of the film. Put it all together and you get a portrait of three men, or one man in three stages of his life, and a weighty demonstration of how those choices keep erupting within our efforts to do what's right.

Worth seeing, should it come available on DVD (which I wouldn't give odds on but hope to see).

A Letter of Fire

If you're going to make a movie about kids, it's important that the kids in your movie can act. Even a little bit.

We walked out after 45 minutes. No acting, a shrill and plodding script and listless direction. Pass.


Three hours of silent Italian goodness in beautiful black and white. Cabiria is an epic film from 1914 that tells the story of its title character, a young girl kidnapped by pirates from her Roman parents, and subjected to rescue attempts, wars, imperious princess mistresses and other thrills.

Lots of thrills. This is some great film-making here. Any movie that features a daring rescue in the midst of a dark and fire-lit temple where screaming children are being sacrificed to a terrible ancient god can't be all bad. And that's just one of many delights in this film: elephants in the Alps (Hannibal, natch), beautiful and psychotic women (with leopards!), armies storming castles, death-defying leaps, exploding volcanoes, entire fleets bursting into flame, the aforementioned pirates, Roman cities collapsing, angry mobs -- holy crap. It's all in this film, a three-hour epic that feels like twenty minutes, it's so packed full of craziness.

Apparently Criterion are bringing out a DVD version -- not to be missed. Unfortunately, that DVD can't possibly include one of the coolest aspects of this screening -- a live pianist improvising the background music for us as the film played. Awesome. Stomp-down awesome.

Film Fest 2006: Post 3

Well, the fest is over now but I've still got quite a backlog of films to get through. Let's get started.

Close To Home

Young Israeli women work their tour of duty in the army on the streets of Tel Aviv, asking folks who look like Arabs to present their identity papers and be recorded. The historical irony is enough to make you believe in a higher power; could something like this really happen by accident? Great performances from two very charming actresses, a number of great high-tension moments (some serious, some comic), all of which is pretty much rendered empty by a chicken-shit ending that refuses to take a stand on the situation. Unfortunate.

The Page Turner

Possibly the show of the festival. I don't know why it wasn't described in the program as a "French lesbian Fatal Attraction set in the classical music world," because I'm pretty sure that would have DOUBLED attendance.

And having said French lesbian Fatal Attraction set in the classical music world I'm not sure what more I can tell you. Unbearably tense, confidently cinematic and restrained just to the right amount so that you spend the entire film waiting for the explosion to finally come. It's a silly film, but a silly film done with spectacular flair. Will get a DVD release -- worth catching. Will probably ALSO get a Hollywood remake, but who knows if that'll be worth seeing?


The anti-samurai samurai film. An anti-revenge revenge drama. The Japanese title is Hana yori mo naho, which is how it's listed in IMDB. A sweet-natured, humanistic film that wallows a little bit in sentimentality but provides so much charm and thoughtful insight into the way people respond to tragedy that it's impossible to not enjoy. It's the story of a poor country samurai who has come to Edo to extract revenge from the man who killed his father, but just isn't really up to the task. Beautifully contrasted with the famous story of the 47 ronin (who are hiding nearby, plotting their own vengeance), we watch our young hero find reason after reason why he SHOULDN'T bother taking revenge, and yet the pressure on him to fulfill his social obligation grows ever stronger.

Great film. Will probably play well at festivals all over, and most likely get a DVD release. Don't miss it.

The Post-Modern Life of My Aunt

I'd never heard of Siqin Gaowa before, but Tina assured me she was a great actress. Mongolian, apparently, and I've always had a soft spot for the Mongols, myself. And Gaowa carries this lilting, delicate film effortlessly. Watching her spar with the very-charming Chow Yun-Fat is delightful, and the journey her argumentative, boisterous character goes on is heart-breaking.

But there's this big moon. A couple of times in the film, characters look up into the sky and it's entirely full of a some humungous moon-thing. I don't get it. What is this with Chinese movies and inexplicable atmospheric phenomena? The ending isn't quite what it needs to be, even though it's heartbreaking, but that moon. I just didn't get it.

The Wedding Director

Fellini + Lynch should be good, or at least there's some interesting territory to explore in that part of the cinematic world, but The Wedding Director director, Marco Bellocchio, doesn't pull it off. He had me for the first half or so. An interesting conspiracy/paranoia thing develops as the eponymous director finds strange coincidences surrounding him, and his entire reputation beginning to fall apart.

It's the ending, though. There were at least three different endings, all of which were incompatible with each other -- does the romantic couple escape on the train, or does the princess go through with the marriage, or does the director run for it? Bellocchio seems to not want to decide, and the end result is a confused audience.

Not going to make much of a showing, I think.

Hang on! Still more to come. We still haven't gone to Bollywood, or played soccer in St. Petersburg, or other stuff.

Swarm Poster

Join the swarm. Even Warren Ellis thinks it's cool.

A whole new way of funding film -- no corporate involvement (not yet, anyway), no studios, just dedicated (and slightly insane) folks coming together in ways that only modern technology can allow, pooling their resources because they think something's worth doing.

Stuff like that is what gets me excited about technology -- because I generally don't like technology for its own sake. I'm not a gadget guy, I don't go after the latest shiny stuff with much enthusiasm. I like the new possibilities that great technology engenders, and the Swarm is a wonderful example of that. RSS feeds and forums and online payment and Creative Commons licensing all coming together to make it possible for a bunch of relative nobodies to produce (or at least plan to produce) a feature film.

Very very cool.

And now they have a poster.

Film Fest 2006: Post 2

Okay, got a few moments to breath at last so I can share a view notes on a whirlwind of films.

Men At Work

No, not a concert film featuring 80's kooks. Four old buddies coming back from a skiing trip encounter strange natural phenomenon and become obsessed with making their mark upon the world. Fairly typical "festival-y" fare, really -- fun opening, quirky characters, inexplicable shifts and way too long. Tries a little too hard to lay on the quirkiness.

Too many characters, really. It starts with four but by the end of it there's more than a dozen folks milling around -- since we don't get to meet them very well they remain cyphers and largely interfere with our ability to connect with the main characters. Offside got this much better -- never too many characters to follow, but still introducing new elements throughout the story.

Still Life

Slice-of-life drama in the Three Gorges area of China, where entire towns are rapidly disappearing beneath the rising waters, with painful impact on all those involved.

Unfortunately, the film relies on UFOs to tie one storyline to another, and honestly, if you're going to have a UFO in your movie, your movie ought to be ABOUT UFOs in some manner. Close Encounters -- the UFOs work there. Still Life, not so much.

Great photography of the area and a wonderful portrait of one man's heartbreak. But too many UFOs for me (or not enough).

No Mercy For The Rude

Shoulda been better. Mute Korean gangster provides voice-over narration to the story of his redemption (sort of). Filled with trademark Korean goofiness, but fails to provide either a) good fight scenes or b) a truly compelling emotional ride. Gotta have one or the other, says me. Some good stuff in it, but the script could have used a few more pass-throughs, just to streamline the story properly. It gets unclear who the bad guys are, which isn't so horrible really, except that by the end you're not really afraid or worried or satisfied or anything. You've just watched a lot of Korean people die.

Better than Oldboy, at least (that's for you, Daryl). But not a worthy follow-up to the glory that was Volcano High.

The Host

Speaking of follow-ups to Volcano High, this one started off so well I thought we were seeing the fabled successor. Usually in a monster movie, the monster is held back on a bit, teasing the audience, until its big reveal for the latter part of the film. Not so here; the first thing that happens is a giant monster comes leaping out of the river and starts chowing down on Korean people.

Clearly South Korea has had Japanese consultants come over and give them pointers on handling giant monsters, as the tanks roll out immediately and the beastie is more or less contained right away. No need to convince the military that this is a threat, nor is there any suggestion that maybe the military isn't up to handling it. Instead, it's the Americans (whose foolishness cause the creature in the first place) who have the completely insane idea about how to handle it and it's up to doughty if rather goofball heroes (we see a recurring trend this way in Korean cinema) to save the day and destroy the monster in a way that doesn't take all of Seoul out at the same time.

Slapstick comedy, heart-wrenching loss and special effects; it should be a home run, but something holds the whole thing back from true delight. The monster just isn't around enough. The opening sequence is the only "monster runs amok" part of the whole film, which is too bad because it's a great monster. We really needed to see it tear into those tanks.

There's also the question of the virus that's at first suggested to be around and then turns out to be a hoax, or something. Maybe it's clear if you're Korean, but I didn't really get what that was all about.

And the final gag, the one that really finishes off the monster? Saw it coming about twenty minutes before it landed.

More to come! Lesbians, Chow Yun-Fat, Bollywood and more!

Film Fest 2006: Post 1

Opera Jawa

Sadly, not Star Wars-related at all. I had images of this sort of thing, really:

But such was not to be. Probably just as well, really. A Jawa Opera is probably a true hamsmacker of an idea.

Opera Jawa does provide an hour's worth of steamy dance-based erotic storytelling, cranking up its very charistmatic stars and building a fearsome tension in the protagonist, a good woman caught between two men. Her struggle to resist her own lust and remain true to the husband she loves is thunderously captivating. Unfortunately for the audience, she settles that struggle an hour or so into the picture.

Which leaves the audience sitting there watching, well, not very much for the second hour of the film.

A New Day in Old Sana'a

Important note for filmmakers around the world: just because you know a guy who speaks English doesn't mean you should cast him in your film, no matter how good looking you may think he is. Find out if he can act first. And whatever you do, dear god, please don't film him performing with those little ribbony things rhythmic gymnasts use. Please.

A New Day in Old Sana'a isn't as bad as this urgent plea might make it seem. The bits with the English guy are tedious in the extreme, yes, but he's not on screen for very large portions of the film. Though yes, he does perform with those little ribbony things. Swear to god.

This film is really driven by the hilariously over-the-top performances from the women. THEIR story is the one you really care about -- Bilquis the queen bitch of Sana'a and humble Ines the ngash painter.

But damn, those ribbons are really a problem.

Sound of the Soul

Why don't more festival films sell DVDs at the theatre? Probably for complicated and dull reasons, but fortunately these folks weren't so shy and we came home with this amazing documentary about the Sacred Music Festival in Fez, Morocco. More highlights than I can reasonably fit into a single post, unfortunately. Awesome.


Women Who Love Soccer and the Men Who Keep Them From It.

Filmed, it seems, DURING the Iran/Bahrain qualifying match for the 2006 World Cup, Offside is yet another film anchored by tremendous female performances, but in this film the women, who risk imprisonment to sneak into soccer matches (where women are not allowed by Iranian law), are bolstered by a laconic, exhausted performance by the guard who just wants to get through the day without getting into trouble with his bosses. He has no answers for the women who challenge him on the law he's trying to enforce, and eventually their willingness to work with him comes from their personal sympathy with him rather than their submission to an insane law.

GREAT film, one of the standouts of the festival so far.

No Island, No Pirates

I'll be posting Film Fest notes over the next few days as Steph and begin our yearly descent into cinematic overload, but for now I thought you should know this:

Of course, once you know that, well, you immediately realise that's only part of the story. Sure, that's easy enough to understand, but if you saw that on, say, a T-shirt, you might only scratch your head in confusion. Which is where this comes in handy:

What do mean, what do I mean? What? I'm just saying. If you saw that on a T-shirt, well, then you'd know, right? You'd just know. Nobody would have to explain it to you. Nobody would have to draw you a picture. You're clever that way.

More Groove

I seem to be in the midst of creating a bunch of sort of "movie-related" music. One reason is that since I can't sing worth piss, and don't have any useful way of recording voices anyhow, I use vocals I can get ahold of, like movie dialogue.

Also some of my favourite music is movie music (like the Kong theme) so what are you going to do?

Now, if you were to grant points based on awesomeness of theme song AND crappiness of movie, I think you might have to rate Diamonds Are Forever as the highest of the high. Song: awesome Shirley Bassey ass-kicking. Movie: Well, uh, no. It sucks a lot. I can't think of another Bond film that quite combines those two qualities so well.

So here we have:

Only Diamonds Never

Steph helped a lot with this one so if you like it you should thank her. You wouldn't like it so much without her.

Life Is An Action Movie

Okay, okay. Yes, we've seen The Protector (No, there's no sign that Tony Jaa is a flash in the pan). Before the show we saw the trailer for Jet Li's new picture, Fearless, and that plus The Protector plus watching Police Story 2 immediately afterwards got me thinking.

Because honestly, the trailer for Fearless doesn't thrill me. And while The Protector's a solid fight film, it doesn't have the sort of thrill to it that Police Story 2 does. And I think I know what the missing component in both is.

Screwing up.

A subject near and dear to my heart. One of the things Jackie gets right in Police Story 2 (and in many of his best films) is failure. His character screws up, makes bad decisions, and has to pay for it. Right at the beginning of PS2 we see Jackie lose his temper over an attempted assault on his girlfriend, and storm across a busy street (and it's one of those only-in-Hong-Kong moments, as just watching Jackie dodge what looks like REAL traffic is enough to cause pulses to rise) to trash the thugs responsible, which he does. It's not the smartest decision ever, but we understand. Guy's gotta look after his girl, right?

It's that willingness to look wrong, to look weak, that really puts great fight films into the realm of great cinema. Jet Li's My Father is a Hero and Jackie's great films all allow that -- the heroes make mistakes. They don't just get hit really hard (which happens to Jaa in The Protector, sure enough); they make bad decisions.

When I see the trailer for Fearless I see shot after shot of Jet Li kicking ass. Which is great, as far as it goes, but if there were a few shots in there of Li getting HIS ass kicked, I'd be a lot more excited about the movie. And it's the same with The Protector. Never mind that Prinkaew hasn't figured out how to shoot a boat chase, or that Jaa relies a little too heavily on the old standy of having bad guys charge just past him so he can slap them a little as they go by, or that when he squares off against twenty guys somehow they all attack him one at a time -- the real problem in this film is that Jaa never ever screws up. He's never wrong, and that makes the whole film just an exercise in physical performance. Without a failure for our hero to overcome, without his own inner demons tearing him apart, there's nothing to the story. And all the fight scenes are nothing more than high-speed dance numbers.

Whasisname who write How To Save The World was talking about this recently when he talked about being a model:
Very few proponents and 'leaders' of successful organizations and movements have the humility to admit that successes and failures are invariably collective and mostly a matter of fortune, not skill or knowledge. Even fewer will tell you what's (still and newly) wrong with what they're doing, what keeps them awake at night -- though those few are the most likely to evolve and continue succeeding.

If I want my life to be a great story, I don't have to do anything very difficult, really. I just have to look at the failures in my life, acknowledge them and humbly set about trying overcome them. I have to give up the notion of always looking like I know what I'm doing, and keep in mind that it's in the moments when Jackie Chan screws up that I love him most.

I admit that it's possible I think more about kung-fu movies than anyone else I've ever encountered. So what?


Little update on the world of DINO-PIRATE goodness:

Our first DINO-PIRATE product, THE SLAVE QUEEN OF THE RUINED CITY, is into its third and hopefully final round of playtesting with games running this week. Release of this puppy may be a while as we haven't yet worked up any useful art for it and who knows how that'll work out?

A good cover is critical in this business -- nothing attracts the eye more than a shiny cover.

The preceding playtest rounds have been instructive -- it's always interesting to see the things that other people pick up on your work. My blindness to my own errors is pretty spectacular -- I'm not at all sure how exactly I came up with some of the numbers on the PCs but they were broken all over the place.

And I discovered that nowhere had I actually DESCRIBED the situation in the adventure -- the whole thing takes place underground but since I'd never mentioned that, some of my playtesters naturally had no idea and so their games ran quite a bit differently than I'd imagined.

Revisions made and newest version sent out. Slowly but surely DINO-PIRATES OF NINJA ISLAND is becoming a reality...

Factory Software

I came across the idea of "Software Factories" on the MSDN site. A Software Factory is an immensely complicated, um, thing, that makes application development easier. Basically, it seems to be a movement to create large frameworks at numerous domain levels, that can then be combined to deliver specific application systems.

Is this whole notion misguided? There's certainly a fair amount of work going on over Microsoft way in building Software Factories -- which appear to be mostly installable plug-ins for IDE's to make it easy to build components. My feeling is that this makes it easier for bad developers to build complicated things.

I'm not sure that's a good feeling I have.

In a mature software factory, application development consists primarily of component selection, customization, adaptation, extension and assembly. Instead of writing large amounts of new code, application developers obtain most of the required functionality from existing components.

I think this means in much the same way developers make use of existing components like the Swing or Struts frameworks, Hibernate or EJB. Of course, those are all Java technologies, so I guess it behooves Microsoft to pretend they don't exist.

But Microsoft seems to want to go deeper than that, with business-domain-specific frameworks that application developers can draw on.

Looking around the industry today, however, we see only a few cases of systematic family based product development, most notably packaged enterprise applications. Why don't we see more? One reason may be lack of knowledge. Product line practices are not well understood in the software industry. Another reason may be inertia. Established practices are often hard to replace, especially when not only technical, but business and organizational changes are required. Perhaps the most significant reason, however, is the high cost of developing the reusable assets, especially the tools.

The cost, however, decreases as your available time increases. This is the secret of open-source development -- as the number of people contributing to your product increases, so does your available time, and therefore your development costs decrease. Obviously there's all sorts of other conditions and issues that arise, so it's not just a straightforward growth line, but in essence one open-source project after another has proven that this model works great.

It IS very expensive. Domain-specific frameworks are only financially viable for groups that can expect to implement them again and again -- huge companies (like, um, Microsoft) or large open-source movements. So far, the evidence suggests that open-source movements are better at it. Firefox, Apache, Linux/Unix: all these systems consistently outperform their closed-source counterparts.

As product developers increasingly depend on external suppliers, supply chains will emerge, as they have in other industries.

The difference being that there's zero cost to acquiring these supplies, and storing/creating them (again assuming you have infinite time, which you essentially do).

Philosophically, I pretty much agree with Microsoft here that this is the direction software development is going. Ever-more sophisticated and interoperable frameworks and component libraries that application developers can assemble to build their systems. But I don't see how we get away from developers needing to know HUGE amounts of stuff. You're still going to need people who know this shit inside and out, if you want high-performance systems, because each system needs tuning to its own conditions.

Or I guess a better way to put it is you're still going to get what you pay for, relatively. Joel Splosky's always going on about how the very best software developers are TEN TIMES more productive than average software developers. I agree with that. I just wonder if maybe the best cobblers were equally more productive than their average shoe-making folk. Didn't make it impossible for people to get pretty darn good shoes from an assembly line.

Where I differ from Microsoft's stated position is predictable given my investment compared to theirs in maintaining an immense software company. Microsoft seems to be making a pitch to non-technical corporate decision-makers, reassuring them that only the big boys can really supply what they need, which will generate the financial investment that these ginormous frameworks and tool sets will require.

Because otherwise it seems clear to me the open-source community will continue motoring on ahead, doing exactly what Microsoft says only they can do. Because this IS a way in which software development is different from other crafts: the only thing you need to work on it is a PC. You don't need leather, you don't need steel, you don't need a workshop, you don't need to pay your workers, even. And that makes it pretty difficult to argue that only those with massive financial resources will be able to make this happen. It's already happening, more effectively and more creatively than Microsoft is going to be able to accomplish.

Says me. Big thinker.

Don't Mistrust My Peeps

I'm heading into "performance review time" -- where I spend some time trying to help each of my people and at the same time try to provide corporate management with security that my department doesn't represent an unacceptable risk to the company. The legal folks need to know that problem people are being identified up front and having their "problemness" communicated to them so that if we have to let them go they aren't able to claim we made no effort to correct things.

It's funny -- I've always railed against this aspect of reviews, feeling like it expressed a lack of trust on the company's part towards my employees. But for whatever reason I see it differently now. It's not that the company doesn't trust THEM; it's that they don't trust ME. They need these forms filled out in order to be reassured that I am doing my job -- correcting unhealthy behaviour and helping people be more valuable to the company.

Which is much easier for me to take. I don't mind so much that they don't trust me; I'm forgetful and not super-skilled so that's perfectly understandable. I don't trust myself all that much. But my team is wonderfully composed of super-heroes who can out-think and out-work anyone you'd care to pit them against. So you don't mistrust them.

Nobody mistrusts my team.

Right Here In River City

The Fifth Discipline has turned out to be one of those books that comes along at just the right moment and helps to structure all the chaotic, unstructured feelings and thoughts you have about a topic, gives you a language to talk about them and helps you see that these things DO make sense, if you have the right context in which to approach them.

The book provides a bunch of practices you can implement on your own:
  • Using system archetypes

  • Clarifying personal vision

  • Test assumptions

  • Acknowledging current reality

But I find myself full of doubt -- can I really implement not only these smaller practices but the more "big-ticket" items like world cafes, workshops, the "U" process and Open Space meetings at a company like mine? How can the drive to make a better world prosper in a company that makes software for a GAMBLING operation, for heaven's sake? Sometimes I wonder what I'm doing here. How can I make happen the sorts of transformations I want to make next to a sportsbook/poker/casino company?

But maybe these are lessons I need to learn. How could they be otherwise, really? I've often quoted at other people the glib little comment: "You find the teachers you need." Maybe it's truer than I knew. When I was living in Japan I needed Sugino sensei. Here at Riptown I need... maybe Riptown. Maybe I need to face the challenge of finding and fostering the strong, dedicated community that truly wants to achieve "mighty things" (to steal a phrase from Shaw, via The Fifth Discipline) right here, amidst server farms and hold percentages and slick advertising.

At any rate, I have to try. I can begin with the little things -- which is best. I often get seduced by the big things, probably because they afford me a more dramatic role, fattening up my self-importance, when I what I really WANT to do is to just be a part (even a wee tiny little part) of facilitating change.

I don't know where it will go. I don't know what it will lead to. I don't have any answers -- only faith that there is a better way to do things, a way that is based on respect and love for others, and generates community and trust and wisdom. If there isn't, well, I'd rather find out now.

Art != Guitar

Overheard conversation at the Vancouver International Airport:

A couple come out of the smoking room and drift past me, halting at the tall glass case displaying a steel cello that has gaps in its body through which gears can be seen.

They consider it carefully.

"That took some time, " says the guy.

He repeats himself.

"That took some time."

They squat to try and read the name on the artist's plate.

"Cory... Fenwick?"

"It's hard to read."

A little kid comes running over and points at the cello.

"What's that?"

The guy grins.

"It's art."

"No, it's not!" shouts the kid.

His parents call for him to return: "Marcus! Marcus!"

"Yeah," says the guy, "That's art."

"No, it's not! It's a guitar!"

The couple are momentarily stymied. The woman recovers first and tries another tack.

"No, no. It's a bass."

"A bass? What's a bass?"

"A stand-up bass."

"What's a bass?"

"Marcus! Come here!"

"It's a big guitar."

The kid nods, his suspicions confirmed, and he goes back to his folks.


"I was looking at the guitar!

I love how the kid completely resisted all efforts to introduce new information into his world, and forced the grownups to talk to him on his terms. A great lesson on how all of us need new information presented to us in the context of what we already understand, or else we just keep forcing the conversation back into our context, and how good we are at doing that. It's not art. It's not a bass. It's just a guitar.

I Wish I Was In Sherbrooke Now...

"Corey, no, no, no! No, no, Corey!"

The familiar ring of Sensei's voice carries all across the gymnasium and I know I'm doing something wrong.

I don't know what, so I just stop where I am in the sequence of moves forming the first of the omote tachi kata and wait for Sensei to explain what it is I'm screwing up. There never seems to be a shortage of mistakes and misapprehensions on my part, that's for sure.

But one thing I learned studying martial arts -- or at least studying with teachers like Sugino Sensei in Japan (and now Sherbrooke) and Skoyles Sensei in Calgary -- is that correction is a gift, a gift that must be treasured and embraced and deeply considered. When Sugino Sensei comes running over and grabs my arm to pull it into the correct posture (usually laughing at my awkwardness as he does so), he is gifting me with his attention. And the attention and consideration of a man like Sensei is nothing to be treated casually. He has spent decades learning this craft, learning from his father and the piled-up ages of experience within him, which now reside in the son. It is a rare and precious thing to be granted even a small portion of that experience.

Not only does Sensei know swordfighting (at least the form swordfighting takes within the Katori Shinto Ryu curricullum) inside-out, he also a gifted instructor, who knows just what change to make to a student's stance so that they will understand a particular move better. With one adjustment of my right wrist Sensei completely changed my understanding of maku-uchi men, the basic overhead cut of Katori -- the very first thing I ever learned at his dojo fourteen years ago.

Watching Sensei at the class at Sherbrooke was wonderful. He would wander between the rows of practicing students, seemingly aimlessly, and then something would catch his eye and his whole body would electrify, and he would rush over to one pair or another, stop their activity and offer correction and guidance. Usually he would laugh his good-humoured booming laugh and then be on his way again, wandering without apparent direction until something else caught his eye. If I'm paying attention, I can learn nearly as much watching him correct others as I can having him correct me.

The parallels with writing are, perhaps instructive -- as much for the similarities as the differences.

When someone reads my work and offers comments, I find that if I can treat their comments as a gift, and accept them humbly and with gratitude, they are far more valuable to me than if I get defensive -- thereby denying the validity of my reader's feelings. I have learned to avoid trying to explain myself, even when it seems that someone has misunderstood my intent. I might ask a question to establish that the reader did in fact read the words that I wrote, but I try never to challenge my reader's impressions.

I try. I'm not actually very good at behaving this way -- the urge to explain and to try and demonstrate my own cleverness is strong and I often give in to it, but I recognize that this is empty, pride-fueled behaviour.

You can't reason with Sensei. Asking questions serves little purpose when receiving correction -- typically when I do ask questions I'm simply trying to make Sensei realise that I REALLY DO UNDERSTAND. That I'm wise and clever and skilled. It's the same in writing.

The only required response to ANY feedback is "Thank you." Whenever someone takes the time to consider what I'm doing and offer their input, I am required to thank them for their efforts. I don't have to say anything else. I don't have to agree with them or demonstrate my acceptance of their correction, but I do have to thank them for the effort.

"Arigato, sensei."

But in writing it's rare to have access to a Sensei. Writing stories doesn't have the kind of rigid standards that Katori Shinto Ryu has. In Katori, if my foot isn't turned out, that's just wrong. It isn't "my style" or an interesting challenge to overcome; it's wrong. Turn the foot out. In writing stories, ANYTHING can work okay if I can make it work okay. Experience is valuable, to be sure, but anyone's point of view has something to offer me as a writer.

Erin mentioned the notion of "Beginner's Mind" at dinner the other night -- the idea that if you can approach your life from the point of view of a beginner, and lose your attachment to your own self-image as an expert, you learn more and are happier thereby. This idea is coming up a lot in The Fifth Discipline -- that living with humility and a willingness to learn from others provides a life of richness and constant learning.

In life, even more than in writing, a Sensei never really shows up. Nobody can show me how to live my life -- because nobody else is living MY life. Who then can I learn from? Well, from everybody. If I'm willing to accept correction and feedback as the precious gift it is, and if I can remember not to react defensively or pridefully when people offer me the benefit and aid of their experience, everyone can be a Sensei to me. I'm certainly not qualified to be an expert on any subject whatsoever, so it ought to be easy enough for me to find teachers wherever I go.

Which does seem to be the case. Certainly everyone I met in Sherbrooke had much to offer lonely little Anglophone me. Folks were tremendously hospitable and welcoming -- Patrick who took me to lunch, Michel who graciously lent me one of his hand-made bokken, Izad (I'm almost certainly spelling that wrong) who helped me with re-learning yoko-men, and of course Martin Sensei and Tong Sensei who were responsible for my being there in the first place. I learned an immense amount.

Now (and this is just as true in writing as in swordsmanship) the challenge is for me to take all the feedback and correction I've received and try to turn it into action. It's one thing to hear and accept that information -- it's quite another to use it to transform myself.

Ah, well, that's what makes it fun, I guess.

A Purpose Worthy of Commitment

"A company that lacks a purpose worthy of commitment fails to foster commitment."

I read that today in The Fifth Discipline, an interesting book by Peter Senge. This is a book I picked up on a whim at Park Royal while Steph was working with Talbots sales clerks on a new jacket. I leafed through it, recognized half-a-dozen terms I've been encountering and dealing with over the past few years -- dialogue, personal mastery, reflective practice and so on -- and was immediately drawn to it. It's a biggish book, around 400 pages, and this is the second edition, just released. The original was published in 1996 and was hailed (says the dust jacket) as "One of the seminal management books of the past seventy-five years," by no less an authority than The Harvard Business Review, and as "One of the five greatest business books of all time," by The Financial Times.

We have a Financial Times fridge magnet at home. I have no idea why. I'm pretty sure neither of us have ever actually read an issue of The Financial Times.

Anyways, with all them glowing reviews and whatnot, I got a little excited and bought the damn thing pretty much on the spot. That was Saturday and I've been devouring it ever since.

I have to stop every so often and let the ideas percolate in my head; it's that sort of book.
"Perhaps the most radical of the five disciplines was personal mastery, the idea that an organizational environment could be created in which people could truly grow as human beings. Most companies today espouse some variation on [this] philosophy... and invest considerable sums in work force development, largely through training programs. But truly committing to helping people grow requires much more than this. I've listened to people... share their experiences for many years, and the emotional center of their stories is always the same. Through diverse life experiences they have formed an unshakable conviction of the power inherent in releasing and aligning human spirit -- and they are on a lifelong journey to discover what this means and how to do it."

I think I'm on a similar journey, in my own ham-handed, club-footed way. And reading this book is making me understand something -- or rather, it's helping me to articulate something that's become ever more clear to me over the past few years. I'm realising that there isn't a magic set of activities I need to perform in order to fulfill my dreams. I don't need to direct movies, or drive race cars, or fly a Spitfire in order to be fulfilled. What I need to do, what I've been craving all my life, is to integrate my work, my passions, my goofy joys and my humble triumphs into a single, seam-filled whole. I need to stop thinking of work as that thing I do to pay the rent, and discover what it is that REALLY keeps me going into the office every day.

Maybe it's fear. Maybe it's an inability to get off my ass and go fly a Spitfire. Maybe it's a need for approval from my superiors (or my inferiors, assuming I have any). Whatever, it doesn't matter. The reality of my life is that I work at my office five days a week, and it's a huge part of my life. And I seem to enjoy it deeply.

I love to do a lot of things but among them I particularly love to bring people together and help them to accomplish more than they thought themselves capable of. I love helping people to grow and learn, and in doing so experience my own growth and learning alongside them. I love belonging to a community of people who trust each other, who can be honest and supportive, who can push each other into ever-higher heights of achievement.

What's drawn me to management, I realise now, is my lifelong conviction that honesty, courage, humility and compassion really ARE the best ways to get things done and to make the world a better place. And that when you can build organizations that support and encourage those values, you build organizations that are greater than the sum of the people who make them up.

That, and the raw naked power of crushing dominion over others. Both are good.

Anyways, expect to see more "work-related" posts on this blog. Up to now I've been keeping "work" reasonably separated from the rest of my life, but I think I was mistaken.

"Perhaps when we rediscover organizations as living systems, we will also rediscover what it actually means to us as human beings to work together for a purpose that really matters."

I guess we'll find out.