Monthly Archives: January 2013

Lance On Oprah

The Confessional Interview

By now, everybody knows Lance Armstrong ‘fessed up to his ‘roiding ways. All bets are on for a flurry of court cases from people chasing their money and dignity. Still, you sort of wonder how the sport stayed so blind for so long.

As I pointed out before, even if they take away his bronze medal from Sydney 2000 and strip him of his 7 Tour de France titles, you’re left with the accomplishment itself; and God only knows who else was doing what for their placings in all those races. There’s simply no undoing this mess.

Although in the bright light of retrospection given his confession, it seems mightily obvious that something was very awry with the sport of cycling if somebody won the Tour 7 times. A cycling athlete once told me that cyclists could be broken into two rough groups: Short guys with lots of torque leading the way through the mountainous terrain and tall guys pumping their way ahead on the flat plains. There really isn’t a cyclist who is at once both tall and short, so it is hard for a cyclist to be dominant over the field – unlike say the way Pete Sampras or Roger Federer towered over their field. The athlete said that it was highly unlikely the same competitor won 2 Tours, let alone twice in a row.

And here we had an individual winning it a record seven times. Even if they strip him of his wins, nobody is ever going to win as many as seven tours without some kind of help. It’s just that kind of sport and that kind of race. So they can strip Armstrong of these honours, but over time I think the seven abandoned results are going to mean something totally different, for, unlike Ben Johnson’s tainted 100m sprint record from Seoul 1988, nobody ‘doing it fair’ is going to go past 7 wins let alone come close.

And there it would sit, in everybody’s consciousness that one time, a man with the help of medical science was able to accomplish the impossible. We may berate him for being a cheat today, but we may well come to a different understanding at some point in the future.

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Plotting In Cliches

Tell me if you’ve seen this movie. Anthony Hopkins plays a really smart, erudite criminal. A jealous husband shoots his wife. The good looking DA is looking to move over to the private sector where there’s oodles of money. There’s a trick. It’s the last day, but he can’t get out. Rosamund Pike plays the supportive love interest.

That’s it right here. I groaned when I read the blurb description but, hey, how bad could it get? Not too bad as it turned out.

What’s Good About It

It’s pretty slick and makes LA look sophisticated. Maye it is these days, I haven’t been there or many years but last I heard of it was Sean Penn’s description likening it to Yoghurt but without the living culture. Like science Fiction, I kind of like it when a film creates a totally unbelievable world. LA with culture? Fancy that.

So in this film, LA is slick and sophisticated in this one, and everything looks perfectly production designed. Even the old car Ryan Gosling’s DA is driving around in is a classy 60s BMW. Like, really? With California’s emission laws? There’s even Harmon Kardon Sound Sticks in Rosamund Pike’s glossy modern apartment. Well, I never! As for Anthony Hopkins’ character’s residence? Well, the production designer sure spent their budget well.

Some times movies are a lot better when the money is spent on the screen well and this might be Exhibit A for that argument.

If you like courtroom dramas this has something for you; if you like intrigue, this has it for you. For a film with a straight forward narrative, it allows itself time and space to have mysteries, and this makes it more  watchable than the run of  the mill courtroom movie.

What’s Bad About It

It gets pretty surreal as it loses itself in the plot points, trying to establish important bits for the trial when in fact it’s establishing it for the ending. As such you wonder if you’re supposed to be rooting for Anthony Hopkins to get away with murder, which is one kind of film or whether you’re rooting for Ryan Gosling to leave the public sector and go work for Anthony Hopkins and make a lot of money.

What’s Interesting About It

The trick. But for once I’ll do my best not to spoil it. It sure wasn’t the butler.

Consumerism As Identikit

I won’t go into it, but it does feature a very interesting comment about our consumerist world, namely that we go out and buy things to define ourselves but all the time the things on offer are mostly mass-manufactured. What this means is that our identity that we present ourselves to the world is like an idenitkit of ideology as well as taste, preference, sensibility and occupation. In a world of semiotics, we are leaking with ‘meaning’ but at the same time this meaning is emergent of consumerism. So just how individual can anybody get?

As captives, we overlook the degree to which even our said taste, preference, and sensibility are largely dictated to by the information provided to us through mass media outlets which are on the whole, purveyors of consumerism again. A decade on from ‘Fight Club’, this film goes a little way to show through its trick that we are in fact our sum total of choices, but that mostly those sum total of choices are choices made from frothy selections of consumerist confection. If we think we’re the sum total of moral choices, then we’re probably the victim of Hollywood propaganda.

The mass media machine offering up choices between Coke and Pepsi or between Ford and GM Holden as if there is something incredibly different between these things when in fact the essential differences between these things are trivial. What seems to peep through is the barren landscape where we are merely the sum total of things we choose to buy.

The Court Has A Narrow Door

The film starts off with the position that it is an open and shut case with a confession from the perpetrator. Then, the court case veers off-track wildly when the attempted murder cannot be linked to the gun or the casings. After that, the plot twists and turns around what else canot be permitted in court. You get the feeling that evidence that can be brought in to a courtroom is made out to be more difficult than it really is in real life.

It’s one of the fascinating things about American courtroom dramas is the regular tropes of inadmissible evidence. You sort of wonder if judges are readily throwing our evidence in real life on the grounds of admissibility. Think of all the cases that might have swung on inadmissible evidence. Think of all the people coin off death row thanks to DNA evidence that came many years later.

It sure makes the lay person wonder about the law’s attitude to evidence.

Euthanasia As Murder

I brought this up in the Movie Double for ‘Terminal Trust’ and The Three Stooges’ but there seems to be a developing trope that the problem with Euthanasia is that it could be used for murder.

I’m a little surprised to find it again in this film.

The Title

Given what happens in the film and the sort of polemic it pursues, the film gives rise to the question, what the title means. The more we look at it, the more abstract this title seems to become. What is it that is fracturing or is fractured? Is it society? Is it the relationship between the magnate and his wife? Is it the District Attorney’s office politics? Or is it the sense of civic duty that should be in the District Attorney that is fractured?

When I reflect upon it, there really isn’t something that gives away a concrete anchor point to this title. In that sense it seems like an incredibly opaque and abstract title to give a film.




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Burn Down The House

Campbell Newman, Hates Green

This link talking about Campbell Newman’s Anti-Environment policies came in from a  horrified Pleiades:

Newman’s administration has:

Dismantled all carbon abatement and climate change schemes — including research into clean energy and programs that encourage people to reduce their carbon footprint — when it eliminated the Office of Climate Change.

– Pulled state government support from the $1.2 billion Solar Dawn solar research and power plant — which was destined to be the largest in the world and would have given Queensland a clear path to reduce its reliance on fossil fuels.

–  Eliminated more than 1,400 jobs across government departments dealing with environmental concerns, as part of a plan announced in the September budget to shed a total 14,000 positions across the Queensland public service through redundancy and “natural attrition”.

– Announced that it would roll back the Wild Rivers legislation that protects areas from development and mining in the Cape York and Western Rivers areas — despite a pre-election promise to leave the western rivers alone.

– Flagged changes to the enforcement of the Vegetation Management Act which regulates how and when landholders can clear native vegetation.

– Lifted the ban on shooting flying foxes, despite the endangered status of some species.

– Proposed changes to the management of national parks that would open them up to tourism, allowing more access for 4WDs, horses and bikes in some areas.

– Announced plans to remove the South-East Queensland urban footprint, which determines the density of development in the region, a planning tool conservationists say protects koala habitat and safeguards biodiversity.

– Prioritised development in the Great Barrier Reef area, with plans to approve projects that UNESCO has asked the government to delay, given the condition of the reef.

In total, such changes have led critics to say the government has put development first and the environment last.

“Whatever the rule book was beforehand, it’s now open slather,” says one former Department of Environment and Resource Management employee, who now works with government in the private sector and therefore wants to remain anonymous.

“[Under the previous Labor government] the environment was an important part of the decision-making process. You couldn’t just go and do whatever you wanted without giving thought to how it impacts on the environment … Under this government they’re just freeing it up so you don’t have to think about it.

“They are just going to town on everything — any piece of environmental legislation.’’

Oh boy, that’s some list! “Queensland – Perfect One Day, Newman-ed the next.”

For all the prattle that politicians say just to get elected, the worst might have been Newman’s promise of having a stronger focus on the environment so that he could speed up mining and development approvals. It seems the strong focus he is talking about is a strong focus to eradicate any kind of environment. It’s clearly Orwellian ‘Doublespeak’ to promise a “strong focus on the environment” only to do away with any and all regulations protecting the environment.

It shouldn’t be surprising. If you put into government somebody with a radical agenda and a significant majority, then it stands to reason that they will go to metaphorically burn down the house. It would be okay if it were only their metaphorical houses, but there is only one world; he’s burning down the whole block. When he allows these mining and developing interests to proceed without any caution or regulation, he’s doing it at our expense in other states.

It’s some pretty evil shit.


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‘Me And Orson Welles’

Orson Welles, Something Smells

The amazing thing about Orson Welles is that he was so much larger than life, he’s warranted several depictions on screen to tell parts of his life story. There are ‘The Night That Panicked America’; ‘RKO 281’ which was all about the making of ‘Citizen Kane’, the ‘Cradle Will Rock’ chronicling the musical production, but also vital moments in ‘Radio Days’ ‘Ed Wood’, ‘Heavenly Creatures’ as well.

He was so interesting stories about him doing things seem to warrant as much cultural space as his own films. Taken on their own they don’t seem to be much, but the more people refer to him and cast other actors to play him, it sort of obfuscates the outline of his work.

What’s Good About It

The film’s script is witty enough that parts of it are more mirthful than one would imagine. The period feel is well done and the concentrated action in the theatre space helps to maintain the mood and feel. Exteriors that might strain the budget are  kept to a minimum.

The real strength of the film is in the cast. The performances are solid enough and not given to too much whimsy that creeps in when films dissect actors. Zac Efron is passably good (he gets a lot of screen time without getting boring); James Tupper who plays Joe Cotton is particularly impressive; Clare Danes is Clare Danes (something a little naff about her in this one); Ben Chaplin as George Coulouris is quite good; Leo Bill as Norman Lloyd is a little too mincing, but still fun. Combined, the sum total of these performances builds a very believable time and space.

Also, the directing makes no attempt to emulate Welles’ style. Thank goodness for that!

What’s Bad About It

I know Christian McKay has portrayed Orson Welles a lot and often, but unfortunately he’s too old in this film version. Welles was born in in 1915. 1937 puts him at about 22. McKay simply looks too old. Also, McKay has the diction down, but his voice is not enough like Welles. They’re minor quibbles, but they do a lot to damage the credibility of what’s happening on screen.

For a reference, this is what Orson Welles looked like at about the time he was doing Julius Caesar:

Orson Welles in 1937

With all due respect to Chris MacKay and his craft, he just doesn’t have the bloom of youth.

What’s Interesting About It

Any time you have a close look at Orson Welles career, you’re struck by how much he was able to do at such a young age. It is as if he appeared into the world fully formed. The anecdotes of him quoting Shakespeare at three seem far fetched and yet he had an encyclopaedic command of the Shakespeare canon by the time he was 18. By the time he was doing his Julius Caesar with the newly minted Mercury Theater, he already was a tyro in New York.

Consider that he was 25 when he did Citizen Kane. This number has weighed on the vast majority of film students who get to Film Schools in their twenties and find that Orson Welles had carved a place in history with just one film by the time he was 25. Perhaps this is why Welles keeps on inspiring film makers to do bio pics or reference him as a character.

How difficult the rest of his career turned out is yet another story. Orson Welles’ amazing career to the point of ‘Citizen Kane’ in a sense defined the young new director with a vision ever since, and just about everybody who got a big break at a young age in Hollywood owes it to Welles blazing that path.

Consider for a moment that the people who put the Mercury Theater were a bunch of twenty-somethings and ended up having such far-reaching cultural impact, and then ponder the opportunities that are genuinely available today. The only other parallel I could think of, is The Beatles and the British invasion or Steve Jobs, Bill Gates and the personal computing revolution.

To be fair, not every group of twenty-somethings is going to be brilliant, but it happens quite seldom, when you look at history from at birds’ eye view. The only way it happens is if the area is new and not too much is established, like talking pictures in the 1930s or Rock music in the 60s or personal computers in the late 70s. Once the area gets established and built up, you only get the facsimile of youthful exuberance. Which brings me to our current incarnation of youthful zest…,

Zac Efron

This is the young person we get today, marketed to us by the dream factory marketing machine. He can dance, he can sing, and he can act well enough to pass on TV. Still, he’s no Orson Welles. It’s not a fair comparison, and he might be the next Leo DiCaprio, but you get my point.

Richard Linklater

The director for this film Richard Linklater is doing some interesting work lately. There’s ‘School of Rock’, ‘A Scanner Darkly’ and ‘Fast Food Nation’ to his credit as well as this film but also ‘Bernie’. He sure picks and chooses some interesting things to film.  I don’t know how all these films connect up in his thinking and that alone makes it fascinating.

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The Expendables 2

More Is More, More or Less

Sly and Co. are back for another ripper yarn of an adventure blowing up shit and shooting lots of people. As usual, nobody seriously gets hit or dies, Sylvester’s character Barny gets hit twice, but he’s wearing a bulletproof vest (“yay!”) and everybody gets to show off something including Dolph Lundgren’s comic turn. The gang is back for more, where more of everything is crammed into this nonsensical adventure.

What’s Good About It

As with the first film, this one seems to have artistic pretensions. They’re mere pretensions, but they are there, even in the muck and grind of low-brow action movies-ville, it’s throbbing in there with a heart of pulp.

It’s impressive they’ve managed to collar together all these stars of yesteryear. It’s supposed to be a smorgasbord of Action stars, let loose to do their thing, and their thing mostly consists of shooting and maiming and  blowing things up. Dialogue is to a minimum with a good dose of cheese. I’m not convinced this is all good, but if I bothered to watch it, it must be because I wanted to see Arnie say “I’ll be back.”

What’s Bad About It

Pedestrian plotting, lame revenge plot, all-too-convenient appearances of Chuck Norris, and there’s absolutely nothing you can take seriously, so it feels like a giant waste of time when you finish watching it.

It’s like when you go to McDonalds because you’ve forgotten how awful it is, then you finish the burger and you vow never to have another McDonalds’ burger. This film is exactly that kind of product. The strange thing is that world is in some marginal ay better with McDonalds and Coca Cola and films like this. It’s hard to explain but easy to show – Growing up in communist Eastern Europe really sucked before the arrival of McDonalds, Coca Cola and Hollywood action movies. Now it sucks much less. You might bag out marginal use-value products like fast food and entertainment but they do have a rightful, net-positive place in the world.

What’s Interesting About It

It’s not nearly as interesting as the first one. Even Chuck Norris’ participation is a little dull and not much flash.

The Return of Arnie

After the cameo in the first one, Arnie is “back” as he is fond of saying and firing away in action sequences. If the ravages of age were unkind on Sly in the first one, then the ravages are much harsher with the former Governator. He looks stiffer than ever before and somewhat saggy of skin and receding of hair.

That being said I do welcome Arnie back to the world of movies and fiction in general. It restores a sense of order in the universe.

O Bruce!

I think Bruce Willis fares worse in this film as well. Once upon a time he was Hudson Hawk getting a stern talking-to from an aged James Coburn. Now he’s the aged dude giving stern talk to Sly and it just doesn’t wash.

The star omnibus quality of this film sort of wears out about the time Jet Li parachutes out of the story line never to come back. Bruce Willis never seems to find the right tone for his participation in this film. As a result he comes across as Bruce Willis floundering between irony and bad taste.

I hope they don’t make another one of these.

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Firebird VII

Firebird Sweet

My Big Guitar Project for 2012 turned out to be this red Gibson Firebird VII with gold trim like the picture above. It’s a bit of confluence of things that led to this project but when I list to factors, you might grok in fullness the weird road to the Gibson Firebird VII.

The most familiar Firebird player in my collection of CDs is Clarence Gatemouth Brown. He had a swanky Firebird V, and there is no duplicating his clean tone without some Firebird under your fingers. It’s just the way it is, because not only is the cut of the body an oddball shape, Firebirds sport minihumbuckers and walnut bodies, with through-body necks.

Other oddities in the Firebird design would be the through-neck design and the Cadillac-fin styling of the body (it was designed by a car designer Gibson Co. hired). It has had many variants over the years, but perhaps the most appealing to me is the Firebird VII with the 3 pickup with Maestro Vibrola arm. Yes, it’s Gibson’s copy of the Fender Stratocaster – even though they’d never admit the bleeding obvious – and being a dyed-in-the-wool Strat player, the one that resonates the most is the FB VII.

Of course, Gibson wares in Australia are always priced for lawyers, advertising execs and drug-dealers, so it was going to be hard to say, “Oh I’ll check out the Gibson”. Sure. On my way home from buying my Aston Martin Bond car.

Anyway, I thought if I could pick up an Epiphone version of the FB VII, I wouldn’t mind loading it up with Seymour Duncans and giving it a red hot go. Of course, Epiphone stopped making their version some years back, so the opportunity seemed to be less than initially imagined. Then along came a full custom shop “body and neck only” in good nick, so that made me empty my piggy bank.

The thing about electric guitars is that you can go through life not knowing the subtleties of what goes into the sound and still be a great player. But if you want to be a unique player, you have to be willing to go much further afield than Strats, Telecasters, Les Pauls and Flying Vs. Similarly, with the choice of wood, you have to leave behind Swamp Ash or Alder or Mahogany. Walnut is the thing! (technically, there is mahogany sandwiched in the FB VII, but the ‘wings’ are Walnut).

Walnut warrants a bit of explication. Alembic use Walnut to build thru-body neck designs for their high end product. The grain is open but tight and so there is a fair chunk of density. It has a higher tone than Mahogany, Swamp Ash or Alder, but is not as bright as Maple. Walnut shows great resonance when you rap it with your knuckles. One of my pet dream projects is to build a guitar around a big Walnut body – like a L5S body – and a Walnut neck, to get the maximum wood tone of Walnut and call it ‘Wally’.

The surprsing thing about the Firebird design is just how much wood there is in it. When I sit it next to a Stratocaster, it’s clear it has so much more wood in the headstock and body. This is important because what gives an electric guitar distinctive tone is the wood; and the more wood there is, the more complex and rich the decay of the envelope. Add in the fact that there is no neck joint and you have the recipe for a very rich sounding guitar.

I installed Seymour Duncan SM-1n in the neck and S-M3n and SM-3b for the middle and bridge positions. They’re all wound around Alnico V magnets instead of ceramic magnets, which gives them a warmer, ’rounded’ tone. I guess one could dream about getting Alnico II versions from somewhere, but Alnico Vs should be good enough for now.

Wiring up was a little strange. The Firebird chamber is very small, and it sports 3 Volume knobs and 1 Tone, but only a 3 way switch. I tried using a 6 way switch but that didn’t work out too well. The 3 Volume pots makes things  interesting, especially because there’s effectively no Master Volume control, but there is a master Tone control. You do have more control over tonal combinations between the pickups but the wiring is convoluted as a result of the choice.

The tuning pegs were also an interesting problem. Because of the oddball design in the headstock and tuners, I had to get Steinberger Gearless Tuners. These are interesting things because they work like a clamp and a shifter rather than the traditional winding on to posts. They too were a learning exercise but now that they’re on, they seem to be very stable tuners.

The weird thing about the Gibson Firebird is that there is nothing apart from the body and neck that can’t be improved by third party parts. The Seymour Duncans are better than the Gibson minihumbuckers; the third party Vibrola copy is more stable than the original; there is a roller saddle bridge with locking posts out there that is an improvement on the Tune-o-matic bridge favoured by Gibson. All the same, when you string it up and set up the action, you’re confronted by the great craftsmanship on the body and neck. It sure makes you wonder about the Gibson company.

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