Saturday, May 31, 2008

2008 NBA Finals-- An Essay Preview

Last night, the Boston Celtics defeated the Detroit Pistons to set up a Finals series with the Los Angeles Lakers. I'm a major basketball fan, and while I anticipate a great series, I'm a little dismayed. With these two teams in the Finals, media outlets around the country are popping metaphorical bottles of champagne, and will be predicting, arguing, looking back, looking forward, comparing, and any other verb one can plug in. Within half an hour of the Celtics-Pistons game ending, ESPN was running the obligatory footage of past Celtics-Lakers Finals: Magic Johnson's hook shot, Larry Bird's sideline towel waving, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's white glasses, Red Auerbach's cigar, Kurt Rambis' nasty hit, and the severe case of secondhand smoke that was the old Boston Garden. The series will easily be the most anticipated one since the 1990s. Last year, I was on vacation, and I was asked who I was rooting for between the Cleveland Cavaliers and the San Antonio Spurs. I couldn't offer anything more than a shrug. This year, I still have no deep, regional interest (read: the Chicago Bulls), but I'm looking forward to it, since the NBA is back. I will be rooting for the Lakers...more on this to follow.

What I will not be rooting for is the media coverage. Fans love to talk about an East Coast bias, and I suppose it will be reflected in the Boston Celtics, with journalists and sportscasters wondering if the Celtics can win their first championship since 1986 (if you pay any attention to the Finals this year, that will be one of a barrage of facts spewed hundreds of times). Another infuriating reflection has been in the advertising. Since the first round of the NBA playoffs, Gatorade has been running a nonstop commercial featuring Kevin Garnett. The theme is "be history, or make history," yet one can only conclude that the ad clearly assumes that Garnett and the Celtics will win the championship. With the ad being run constantly, I wonder what would have happened if the Atlanta Hawks had pulled off the upset in the first round. Would it still be running, or would the advertising executives have made a hasty replacement ad with Tim Duncan or Kobe Bryant?

Curiously, I'm very much looking forward to the sideline shots of the coaches, Doc Rivers and Phil Jackson. Throughout the playoffs, they have acted as total opposites. I can't remember a coach as animated (or pouty) as Rivers. Even as early as the second quarter of a given game, a call against the Celtics makes him jump and scream as if lives hang in the balance. How he doesn't get hit with more technical fouls is beyond me, at least just as a message to calm him down. While Jackson would probably be a great coach no matter how old he is, age is definitely catching up with him. He doesn't yell as much as he glares, sort of resembling an angry old man who has just been shortchanged at a sandwich shop. In all seriousness, one has to respect Rivers' coaching. Under a different, lesser one, the Celtics would probably have been eliminated weeks ago. Jackson likely has had the exact same style that he had in the early 1990s, but the Lakers haven't truly been challenged in the postseason yet. True, the Utah Jazz took them to six games, but did anyone really have any doubts that the Lakers would win that series?

If the Celtics win, I will be happy for one player: Paul Pierce. As awful as his teams have been lately, it's amazing that he wasn't traded years ago. With all respect to Garnett, Pierce is the definite face of the team. This is embarrassing to admit, but I was openly rooting for the Celtics in 2002, when they advanced to the Eastern Conference Finals. In my younger, misguided mind, I actually thought that the tandem of Pierce and Antoine Walker could win a championship. This was before Walker gained too much weight and primarily became known for shooting and missing way too many three-point shots. I'm sure that the Celtics management listened to many trade offers for Pierce, but they did a smart job of keeping him. Otherwise, the team would have been even worse before the trades for Garnett and Ray Allen.

I hesitate to make predictions, because I try to keep Chicago Ex-Patriate above a typical "blog." But, since this is a Finals preview, I'll do so. I pick the Lakers to win the 2008 NBA Finals in six games. The Lakers have a deeper bench, and I prefer Derek Fisher's playoff experience to Rajon Rondo's inexperience (all around) at point guard. Pau Gasol will have a major defensive challenge with Garnett, but that matchup will be fun to watch regardless, considering their previous tenures with losing teams. The obvious "x-factor" (as much as I loathe that term) is Kobe Bryant. I never thought I would ever write this about anybody, but he is the closest thing to Michael Jordan that we'll ever see (oh, how close he was to being a Bull in the off season). No player on the Celtics can take control of a game like Bryant. I envision at least one 45-50 point game from him, likely in Los Angeles, preferably with his team down two games to one. A game like that would turn the series in the Lakers' favor, even with a game six in Boston.

And a final note to the ABC camera people: Yes, we know that Jack Nicholson will be in attendance at the Staples Center. You don't need to show him every five minutes.

Friday, May 30, 2008

If You Have Not Sinned, Cast the First Cinematic Stone

For both the readers and contributors, the Production Design Blog-a-Thon was a terrific study of film, focusing on an aspect that could easily be overlooked, depending either the film in question or the viewer him/herself. The reasoning behind the project was essential--there are so many contributors to a given film, and sadly, many of them can easily be overlooked. The selected films represented diversity, from mainstream (Star Wars) to independent (George Washington); Old Hollywood (Frank Capra) to New Fantasy (Tim Burton). However, every submission was linked by a pure, gleeful love of movies (I choose these adjectives carefully. Re-read some of the contributions and try to tell me they're not accurate).

On another note, the project made me think of other films, ones that most of us wouldn't think to include in such a discussion. I used to call these films "guilty pleasures," but a friend of mine made a wonderful point: If you enjoy a certain film (or album), there should be no shame in admitting it. They are not guilty, merely pleasures. One person's Jean-Luc Godard is another person's Uwe Boll, and vice versa. My point is not to get into an argument of "high" or "low" cinema, but to rather keep the joy of film stirring, and to come clean in sharing some former "guilty pleasures." I have a strong love of foreign and independent cinema, but here are five movies that I heartily enjoy, and will gladly admit to everyone:

1.) "Happy Gilmore"
2.) "Death To Smoochy"
3.) "Must Love Dogs"
4.) "Doom" (videogame adaptation)
5.) "Scream"

Go ahead, give it a try. We all love films that will probably never appear on the Criterion Collection, and admitting this can be exhilarating.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Production Design Blog-a-Thon-- "Le Samourai"

Translation: "There is no greater solitude than that of the samurai, unless it is that of the tiger in the jungle...perhaps..." (Le Bushido, The Book of the Samurai)

Le Samourai (1967) Director: Jean-Pierre Melville/ Production Design and Set Decoration: Francois De Lamothe

My first viewing of Le Samourai was two years ago, and I picked it for this project because I remember looking back on it in terms of the overall look and "feel" of the production design. Having watched it again, I'm amazed at just how much the design works on both a literal level and an intangible level. It is credited to Francois De Lamothe, but one has to wonder how much of it was actually done by him, and how much was done by Melville, who always maintained extensive creative control over his films, going beyond writing and directing.

The opening shot above establishes Jef Costello's (the samurai) apartment, a bare, dark studio with very few objects. He is a man who lives by personal principles and an undefined (yet obvious) code of honor, so it's natural that his living space is just for that purpose: living. Scenes throughout the film show what he owns as far as basic necessities:

A bird for companionship (which also plays a crucial part in the plot);

Cigarettes, water, an alarm clock, and a telephone;

And the object he uses the most, his mirror. Everytime he leaves his apartment, he carefully makes sure he looks presentable, playing into his personal principles.

Early in the film, we see his girlfriend's apartment, and it's striking how clean and modern it is compared to his place. Virtually every other scene shows that he lives in a modern world, yet maintains an old-fashioned simplicity in his own world.

This apartment above (where his bosses meet and confer) is extremely gaudy and doesn't seem to match what a gangster's residence would look like on film. However, it's an excellent representation of excess. Some of the houses in Martin Scorsese's Goodfellas follow the same decor.

This is the garage where Jef takes stolen cars to have the license plates replaced. Other than his apartment, it's the only place in the film that seems run-down and shabby. His work as a contract killer takes him to lavish apartments and lounges, yet the places he consistently has to visit reflect the underworld of crime.

Lamps and lights are a constant in the film. As a killer, Jef relies on being hidden and in the background, yet is unafraid to have a spotlight. When he is under scrutiny or being questioned, he maintains a strong alibi, and the lights show that he appears to have nothing to hide. The single lights also remind me of interrogation scenes in countless police/crime movies and television shows.

The police lineup shot below is one of my favorites. In addition to keeping with the theme of spotlights, it introduces another recurring motif: lines. Whether vertical or horizontal, many of the scenes contain straight lines. I initially thought of a scene in Double Indemnity, where as a representation of guilt, Fred MacMurray is covered in the shadows of Venetian blinds, giving the impression of a jail cell. I'm not sure if that idea works for Jef, because he never feels guilt.

If we are indeed meant to think of jail cells in relation to lines, the above scene is the best representation of that.

The above shot shows Jef leaving his apartment for the first time. It might be hard to see in this image, but there is an excellent contrast. His hat and trenchcoat blend in to some of the buildings, but as he keeps walking, there are bright colors in the background. He's hidden and in plain sight at the same time.

The police Superintendent is often juxtaposed with maps of Paris (in another scene, he tracks Jef through the Parisian metro via spies and electronics, all while watching it on a large, illuminated map). As he investigates the nightclub owner's murder, he alternates between being very charismatic and very blunt. In his mind, he owns the city, and he doesn't believe that anybody can hide.

In the above scene, Jef visits the lounge's pianist. Aside from his behavior and the title of the film, these are the only other references to Japanese culture. The pianist wears a Japanese robe, and to her left appears to be a bust of a warrior. To me, this is smart filmmaking....if these were to appear in Jef's apartment, they would draw too much attention and clash with the minimalism of the apartment as well as his samurai code being reflected strictly through his actions.

The metro scenes also provide contrast, being extremely well-lit and lined with colorful advertisements. Jef does his best to lose the spies following him, despite being cornered and unable to hide in the open, vibrant spaces.

The only other film by Melville that I've seen is Bob le Flambeur, and while I plan on watching that one again as well, I don't remember being consciously aware of the production design. The beauty of Le Samourai is that the viewer has little things to process in addition to following the plot and dialogue. It's not a complicated film, but the attention to detail is remarkable.

As far as the costume design goes, it's important to note that most biographies of Jean-Pierre Melville mention his love of all things American. Jef is clearly modeled on American film noir, and he would easily fit into a movie like Out Of the Past or Public Enemy. However, his personality is strictly samurai. He's not loud or abrasive, but succinct and to the point.

The film also maintains a very modern look, and even today, does not appear terribly dated (with the exception of the police equipment). While there's no doubt that it's set in Paris in the 1960s, some films from that era are painfully obvious, whether it be the clothing or the objects in various stores and houses.

This trailer for the film shows how it looked during its initial release, thus showing how important digital restoration can be in relation to production design. While the notes and analysis that I've written here are still apparent, the scenes and cinematography seem less vibrant than they do on the DVD release. It also makes the film look extremely dated, contradicting my ideas in the above paragraph. The small details and backgrounds seem dulled. On DVD, we're seeing the film as it's meant to be seen.

(Note: Forgive the vast amount of blank space at the bottom of this posting. I was having a lot of formatting issues.)

Friday, May 16, 2008

Casual Friday-Poetry II

Here is another poem created from Blogger updates. Check out the first one for the complete details.

"The Second Blogger Poem"
Detroit Metro is an influential region and it is up to us to keep Detroit that way
Life Sucks When Your Spoon Is Too Big...Do You Have A Smaller One???
Well, I'd like to say that this is a poor show people
Does ANYONE have a cure for insomnia?
it has been a while
I'm bamboo, your cute friend!
latest technologies
Portal link carian
Strider Tells The Story Of What God Is Doing In Middle Earth
You're So Very Special
Hm...not quite as surreal as the last one. I view this as a sort of modern struggle of daily life in a major urban area, rife with congestion, insomnia, and confusion. Hm, I think these random poems are starting to take more coherent shapes. I look forward to the next one.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Production Design Blog-A-Thon: Preview

Jeremy P. Bushnell (mentioned previously in my post "Literature and the Internet") is calling for essays and thoughts on various film production designs/designers. The full details are listed at the website above, and it should be an excellent, though-provoking collection. I'm participating myself, and will be posting an essay on one of my favorite films, Jean-Pierre Melville's Le Samourai. I screened it about two years ago, so now would be the perfect time to return to it. I will have other posts before this, but my essay on the film will be posted on either Monday, May 19th or Tuesday, May 20th.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Notes on Marshall McLuhan--"Classrooms Without Walls"

(Preface: I had intended to have this essay posted last week, but it ended up going through a few drafts and a few different directions. It's part of my attempt to see writing projects through to completion, no matter how long they take. I used to have a problem with starting pieces, getting bored, and moving on to other ones. Hopefully, with this essay, I've broken out of that habit. Time will tell.)

In a previous post outlining some basic thoughts on the pros and cons of Internet publishing, I tossed in the quote "the medium is the message" by Marshall McLuhan. While I believe that I used it in the proper context, I was a little disappointed in myself. There was (and still is) so much about McLuhan that I didn't know, and had I used that quote in an academic setting, I conceivably would have left myself open to that ignorance. On top of that, I've had the book Understanding Me in my possession for over three years, having used it for a research paper in one of Joseph Tabbi's literature/technology courses. I have distinct memories of giving a two day presentation on John Donne in high school, but absolutely no memory of what I gathered from Understanding Me, a collection of essays and lectures by McLuhan.

To say that he "predicted" the rise of the Internet and computer technology on the arts is akin to saying that George Mikan and Bill Russell "predicted" the rise of the center position in basketball--the statement is true, but there's much more to be said. McLuhan didn't create the Web like Tim Berners-Lee, nor did he make sketches in the style of Leonardo DaVinci's helicopters. He primarily lectured and wrote, and in the process used humor and clarity to foresee the future of communications. After reading and studying the book again, I don't feel as bad about "quote-dropping." Every lecture and essay is full of phrases that can be easily applied to twenty-first century media studies.

"Educators naturally feel that their job is to maintain the educational establishment, and to preserve and advance the values so long associated with its procedures/One effect of the commercial movement of information in many media is that today we live in classrooms without walls (McLuhan 2, 7)."

In a wonderful example of perfect timing, I read these passages (from a lecture given in 1959) not long after the state of Washington began airing commercials for an online high school. The ad lists the benefits. Students can study anywhere and at any time with a government-issued laptop and printer. When I first saw the ad, I sided with the "educational establishment," merely out of selfishness. If I had to wake up early and be at my high school by 8:00AM, why should today's students catch a break? Not much later, I began to see the value of the idea and realized that McLuhan was right nearly fifty years ago. Technology helps education; it doesn't take away from it. Perhaps in my lifetime, all schools will be digital, with CD-ROMs and files replacing books. This also used to upset me, because of my love of the book as a physical property. But I take solace in the fact that books will never disappear.

"For example, our present concern about closed-circut television in education is parallel to the sixteenth-century concern about whether print and the vernaculars could do a serious educational job. It is actually asking whether the car can ever supplant the horse. We are losing precious time in such static retrospection (McLuhan 8)."

We just need to embrace change. Doing so will not necessarily make old technologies obsolete. For example, look at vinyl records today. Sure, the technology of music has changed drastically, but records will never totally die out. In my mind, the same is true about the print medium. As McLuhan noted, "the content of any technology is inevitably the older technology (91)."

Another aspect of McLuhan that is astounding is how perfectly comfortable he would have been had he lived into the 2000s. He went against the mold of a "stuffy" professor, but was rather naturally tuned into youth culture and its relationship with technology. In the introduction to Understanding Me, Tom Wolfe stated that McLuhan would have loved the Internet. This is very true, and taking it further, he would have loved the explosion of blogs, zines, and underground communications.

"Today, Xerox and other forms of reprography tend to make every man a publisher. This massive reversal has, for one of its consequences, elitisim. The nature of the mass production of uniform volumes certainly did not foster elites but rather habits of universal reading. Paradoxically, when there are many readers, the author can wield great private power, whereas small reading elites may extert large corporate power (McLuhan 179)."

This passage supports my opinion, but I feel that McLuhan contradicts himself when he says that the power of Xerox lends itself to elitism. In fact, I feel that it goes against the other statements. As I've alluded to in the post Literature and the Internet, Xeroxing (and the blogging/self-publishing boom of today) actually distances itself from elitism, because it mass-produces literature and information with the intent of moving beyond traditional publishing methods. Then again, perhaps McLuhan means that Xeroxing mass-produces on a smaller scale, not intended for large groups of readers, but instead for an "elite" few. I also kept noting that Xerox is always capitalized. Obviously, this is because it's a trademark name, but on another level, it goes beyond that, giving a mark of legitimacy to a means of publication that actual elitists might criticize.

"A mass medium is one in which the message is not directed at an audience but through an audience, as it were. The audience is both show and the message. Language is such a medium-- one that includes all who use it as part of the medium itself (McLuhan 25)."

I want to conclude this essay with thoughts on McLuhan's ideas in conjunction with his cameo in Woody Allen's Annie Hall. The above quote, from a lecture given seventeen years before the film was released, can actually be used as a kind of summary of the scene. Allen's Alvy Singer character works as a representation of the audience, voicing concerns and analysis directly to the screen (breaking the "fourth wall"). The scene represents a fantasy that most of us have, to silence a blowhard with the most unrefutable information available (in Alvy's case, this information is McLuhan himself). Therefore, the mass medium (film) flips McLuhan's statement, allowing the audience to vicariously absorb the message through Alvy. The audience is indeed "both the show and the message"--whether they realize it or not.

Work Cited:
McLuhan, Marshall. Understanding Me. Copyright 2003 by Stephanie McLuhan.

"Everything Sounds Better on Vinyl:" New Fiction in Gulf Stream Magazine

Good morning, y'all! I have a new short story up today. You can read " Everything Sounds Better on Vinyl " in the Spring i...