Archive for the ‘Cinema’ Category

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What-are-you-reading-Wednesday: The Lost Symbol

December 10, 2009

I just read Dan Brown’s newest book, The Lost Symbol — even though it was published in September. Here’s why: I like to buy the editions of Brown’s books that come out after they make the movie, with all the gorgeous illustrations and photographs of locations like Rome and Paris. Knowing that I will eventually purchase such a volume for The Lost Symbol, I decided to get the first edition out of the library. I put my name on the reservation list, where I was number 749 in line, and I just got a copy. Loved it, love all his books, usually read them in a day or two (509 pages), and evidently so do a lot of other people.

Maureen Dowd wrote in the New York Times: “Brown has always written screenplays masquerading as novels.” Clearly, that’s the first type of appeal in Brown’s fast-paced, suspenseful stories. He has a knack of ending a chapter with one of his characters in such a predicament that you have to skip ahead and find out how they got out of it. The second attraction in Brown’s novels is provided by Robert Langdon, his Harvard professor hero (played by Tom Hanks), in the form of arcane but fascinating historical, cultural, and artistic trivia. This erudition did not impress Time Magazine’s Lou Grossman, who commented: “Brown’s scholarship reads like the work of a man who believes what he reads in Wikipedia.”

I, however, enjoy the places Brown takes you in his whirlwind tours of famous cities. In the case of The Lost Symbol, the story is set in Washington, D.C., a place whose treasures are far more valuable than whatever the villain and hero are chasing after in the novel. Behind the scenes at the Library of Congress, the Smithsonian Institution, and the United States Capitol, there is a world of documents, artworks, and artifacts, amazing in its scope and depth. To meet the people who care for and know about them is a true pleasure. The book’s website includes a Reader’s Guide to Washington, D.C., with more about these national landmarks.

I also like Brown’s puzzles, codes, and encryptions, which are always entertaining. The key puzzle in The Lost Symbol is “a perfectly square grid of symbols from every tradition imaginable — alchemical, astrological, heraldic, angelic, magical, numeric, sigilic, Greek, Latin.” The 64 symbols in the 8 by 8 grid are somewhat familiar: a row of symbols for the planets, symbols of the great religions, astrological signs. (Mine is Gemini, which looks like the Roman numeral II.) You probably have access to many of these symbols — just open up Word and change your font to Symbols or Wingdings, and you may be able to recreate Brown’s code!

Anyway, I should stop here and return my copy to the library. There’s still a waiting list with 372 eager readers on it.

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Meandering Indiana 14 – Henry County

June 8, 2009

Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame

Chaucer wrote in The Canterbury Tales that when spring arrives “than longen folk to go on pilgrimages.” So it was that while on vacation I decided to visit a shrine or two. Of course, this led me to Henry County.

I’d been in New Castle before, attending a meeting at the community foundation. But this time I was able to enter the sacred space of the Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame. On that particular day, the long walk from the parking lot to the front door was lined with clothes and shoes, set out on tables. Under a sunny sky, The Hall was having a yard sale.

Inside I watched the brief film that tried to explain why basketball is special in the state of Indiana. It was preaching to the choir but nicely done. Wandering up and down among the glass cases, I saw photos, trophies, newspaper clippings, jerseys and letter sweaters — all the material embodiment of legends and heroes.

The most special of all, always paired in my mind, are the 1954 and 1955 state championship teams. You know the stories, too. The first is the Miracle of Milan with Bobby Plump’s last shot. The second, as wonderful, is the first school ever to win a state championship for Indianapolis — Crispus Attucks with its star, Oscar Robertson. I was once privileged to attend a 50th anniversary reunion of that team and the team it beat in the finals, Gary Roosevelt. The Indiana Humanities Council was part of the celebration at Hinkle Fieldhouse via a grant for the project, which was directed by Dr. Bill Wiggins.

Afterwards I went through the enshrinement gallery, with its exhibit of black-and-white portraits drawn by the artist Keith Butz. Each player or coach is depicted in two images, one at the time of induction into the Hall of Fame and one as he or she looked back in the day. (Girls and their coaches were included although they did not get a state tournament until 1976.)

I could have spent more time there, but I wanted to move on to my next stop in Henry County, the Hoosier Gym. Taking Route 3 south from New Castle, past I-70, to U.S. 40, then turning west brought me quickly to Knightstown. It took a bit of searching to find the Gym because it’s attached to the Knightstown Academy, which looks more like a courthouse. It was, however, once a school, and when the county built a new consolidated high school, a developer bought the Academy, now on the National Register, and turned it into condominiums.

A weekend festival was about to start, with a commemorative game to be played between “Hickory High” and “Terhune.” Again I found piles of T-shirts and souvenirs for sale outside and a volunteer docent inside to explain about how “Hoosiers” came to be filmed in this gym. I asked him whether the film crew had to do much to prepare the site for movie-making. No, he said, it only needed a coat of paint and a bit of gloss added to the floor. Otherwise, it was already perfect.

Still owned by the town, the Hoosier Gym is administered separately from the condos, so it is watched over by its community group, just as the Hall of Fame is. Therein lies the true soul of Indiana basketball, for legendary games are not only about those who are heroes but also about those are witnesses.

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Time and Again

February 2, 2009

Since today is Groundhog Day, we were thinking of watching the movie. This movie is so well-known that “Groundhog Day” has entered the cultural vocabulary as referring to a particular type of time travel: being caught in an infinite loop and reliving the same experience over and over.

What is your favorite movie about time travel? Mine would probably be “Back to the Future,” “The Final Countdown,” or perhaps “The Lake House.” Of course, there are many others, including “Somewhere in Time” and the classic, “The Time Machine.”

“The Time Machine” was adapted from the novel by H.G. Wells which defines the genre, but in American literature there is another very fine example: A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court by Mark Twain. I have always enjoyed the chapter where Hank, the Yankee, is trying to explain the concept of inflation to sixth-century peasants who think a penny is an excellent wage for a day’s work. Film cannot possibly capture the fun of the verbal slapstick in Twain’s dialogue as Hank predicts a time in the future when a mechanic’s average wage will be an astonishing 200 cents a day.

In 1890, the year after Twain’s book came out, Ambrose Bierce published a short story entitled “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge.” This tale set the standard for journeys through compressed time, wherein a character lives a lifetime in a single moment of imagination.

All of these forms of fiction illustrate the mystery of time and the magic of literary and cinematic art. A good book is, after all, a time machine in itself.

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Meandering Indiana – 8

September 16, 2008

I was shocked to learn recently that Sullivan County lies due south of Terre Haute, not off in the Hoosier National Forest somewhere as I supposed. Shocked, because that means I’ve driven through the county lots and lots of times without knowing it was there.

Since I’ve visited the “Pocket” (SW Indiana) on countless occasions, I’ve apparently shot down I-70 to Terre Haute, driven straight through to Vincennes, done that ridiculous curlicue to stay on US 41, and then on to Evansville, without paying a bit of attention to Sullivan County, which sits smack in the way. On the return trip, I usually check my gas gauge and think, no, I can make it to Terre Haute and again not stopped. Well, I apologize, and next time, it will be different, so help me.

What finally made me see the light was a grant application from the Sullivan County Historical Society for one of the Indiana Humanities Council’s emergency flood grants (still available). In detailing the story of their trials with the floods & rain, they pointed out that Sullivan County — the county seat of which is Sullivan, Indiana — has had its notable citizens.

For example, the SCHS is the repository of the papers of Antoinette Leach, the first woman in Indiana to be admitted to the bar (June 14, 1893). She was admitted when the Indiana Supreme Court found that an “error” (yeah, right) had been made by the Greene County Circuit Court, which refused to allow her to practice law.

Another remarkable native of Sullivan County was William Harrison Hays, Sr. Not only did Hays manage the campaign for the presidency of Warren G. Harding, but he was also the first president of what became the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA). As such, he lent his name to the Hays Code of 1930 which sought to uphold moral standards in the making of Hollywood films. It lasted until the 1960s when it was replaced by the MPAA film rating system. The Hays archive is also housed at the SCHS.

Another feature of Sullivan County that I really need to see is Merom Bluff, described as a mountain range (!) and said to have a fantastic view overlooking the Wabash River. So there’s my proposed meandering itinerary, for once not in the past but in the future. All I need is a tank of gas, a place to have lunch, and I’m all set.

This entry was posted by: Nancy
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Do Museums House the Simulacrum Threat?

August 15, 2008

I know in advance I’m probably way off base here, but this very brief interview with Alison Griffiths at the Columbia University Press blog about her new book Shivers Down Your Spine and the Immersive View kept making me think of “the uncanny valley.”

If you have spent any time on the internet (and given where you’re reading this, I’m certain you have) you have probably heard of the “the uncanny valley,” which is a measure of likeablity for various kinds of “human facsimiles” (robots, muppets, cartoons, etc) that runs from “Super Creepy” to “Totally Great.” I’m going to be pretty general here, if you want something less so, then click the previous link. Basically our willingness to accept certain human forms rises very slowly as facsimiles move from not-human (one of those robot arms that puts bolts in car doors) to an attractive healthy human. But somewhere around Tom Hanks’ character in The Polar Express the general level of acceptability plummets before it rises again with actual humans on the other side of this “uncanny valley,” the unhappy denizens of which are often described as “corpselike.”

At any rate, there’s something here, I think for philosophers in the Baudrillardian tradition. Is Griffiths correct in assuming that the shiver we feel upon entering “the rainforest in the Hall of Biodiversity at the American Museum of Natural History” is rooted in ” a sense of the infinite and divine” as when we enter a Gothic cathedral; are the “shivers down our spine” really inspired by “a disjunct between what we see and feel and what we know is happening to us” similar to the ticklebelly feeling of watching Batman leap from a Hong Kong skyscraper in The Dark Knight in IMAX? Or, as the interviewer asks, is it more akin to the “shivers down our spine” we get from horror movies, something rooted in the reptilian part of our brain that seeks survival when confronted with the existential threat of the Artificial pursuing dominance over the Organic? Are we staring into the abyss and recognizing that the face of the beast that looks back is this one?

https://i0.wp.com/www.smh.com.au/ffximage/2005/11/14/Polar_051114104811699_wideweb__300x375.jpg

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Riff the Scroll

July 1, 2008

We were young and in trouble or always on the verge of it really, sometimes we were bored or just said we were but we talked and talked and talked and sometimes the words hung around our heads, circled our heads like mad halos and there’s a certain kind of madness in the young and desperation too. And we read On the Road and we read Notes from the Underground and we read Huxley and Dylan Thomas and Ernest Hemingway–never too earnest. And when we found the time to rent weird movies, they were on VHS tapes back then, we rented Kafka and Easy Rider and we were sensible enough to stay away from Burroughs in film or in print, for a little while anyway, but then we read him too, and boy were we sorry, but in a good way. And Jack Kerouac typed On the Road twice because he lost it somewhere along the way or somebody–maybe Ginsberg–lost it for him, I don’t remember–a feat so amazing it’s true in legend if nowhere else or maybe nowhere at all because I could have made it up. And the scroll went from hand to mad hand from mad hand to glad hand from man hands to other hands to the hands of Jim Irsay, who sent the scroll packing to Florida and San Francisco (home of The Beats) and to New York where Lorca rode around on the backs of alligators and now the Indianapolis Museum of Art is showing it off for a bit.

Yeah.

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Summer Nights at the IMA

June 23, 2008

I’ve already missed Grease, Gilda, and This is Spinal Tap but I fully expect to see the following shows if I am in town: The Goonies (this Friday), Strangers on a Train and Ghostbusters. I may even hit up some of the others.

Summer Nights is one of Indianapolis’s all-time great times and everyone should get out to at least one of these a year if not more (or all).

Of course, that’s for people who live within a comfortable driving range from Indianapolis. Really, the thing is to see great movies, outside, with friends–in a terraced amphitheater or in a gravelly drive-in.

I hope that outdoor movies and summer are with us forever and ever. I really do.

Photo by flickr user Jim Rees under Creative Commons license.

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Friday Blincoln Blog

June 13, 2008

I’m going to get at Lincoln in a very roundabout fashion for today’s Blincoln Blog. I was reviewing the list of the grants that the IHC awarded in its second 2008 round and I noticed that one of them went to the Lew Wallace Study Preservation Society. I thought the name, Lew Wallace, sounded familiar, so I looked him up. And let me just tell you, he’s an impressive cat.

I first learned of Lew Wallace’s Indiana connection when I was working as an intern for the Governor’s Council for Physical Fitness and Sports a few years ago. INShape Indiana’s office was right on The Circle in downtown Indianapolis and that’s when I first began taking an interest in the architecture here.

Several buildings would stand out enough for me to look up after my lunch break was over and the Blacherne was one. Or, more accurately, the Blacherne is a fine looking building but it has it’s name written on it, which makes it easy to remember and look up. And that’s when I learned about Lew Wallace, Civil War general, and architect.

I also learned that tidbit that he is certainly most famous for: He is the author of Ben Hur: A Tale of the Christ, a book that, Wikipeidia will tell, you has never been out of print in 137 years and has had been adapted to film an incredible four times.

In addition to battlefield and authorial success (and architectural) Wallace also served as governor of the New Mexico territory and as the U.S. Minister to the Ottoman Empire. The list really goes on and on.

He was born in Brookville, Indiana and died in Crawfordsville.

Abraham Lincoln connection:

Well, in addition to serving in the Union Army, he also served on the military commission that tried Lincoln’s assassins.

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Welcome to the Thunderdome!

June 12, 2008

One of the steadfast assertions of humanities scholars is that the humanities are the means by which we develop context for new unknowns. The arts, specifically art history, literature, and drama (theatre and cinema) are particularly good at this.

As we were chatting this morning around the bust of Longfellow, conversation moved to, as it so often does, The Road Warrior, Mad Max.

The original Mad Max movie debuted in 1979 just as the world was experiencing its last fuel crisis (before the current one) and its plot was a none-too-subtle reflection of that time of fuel rations and long lines at filling stations. (They used to call them “filling stations” way back then.)

For those who don’t know, Mad Max is the story of a cop, Max, whose wife is slain by a biker gang after the cops crack down on them–an act which subsequently drives Max mad. Now, this story is set in an Australia of the not-too-distant future (perhaps 2008?) and gas is in short supply. So, the biker gangs are also gas pirates–seeking dominion by controlling the most precious of resources in the lawless Australian wastelands.

Flash forward, if you please, to a more recent time.

Several years ago I learned of a new alternative fuel: used vegetable oil. I was at the Cath Coffee house at 52nd and College (ran by the delightful Nora Spitznogle) listening to traveling songstress Jaia Suri who, at the time, was traveling around the country in a pickup truck she had had converted so that it ran on used vegetable oil. I know, right?

She had a rig she carried around in the pickup bed that pumped and filtered the captured oil, conducting it into a huge tank. And wherever she went, she told us after the show, she left the smell of french fries behind her.

She collected fuel by hitting up various Burger Kings, Wendy’s Good Times Burgers etc, asking them if she could pump the used grease from their grease traps, which, at the time, they were happy to allow her to do, if what somewhat confused why she’d want to.

Then there’s today. The gas this morning on South Madison Avenue was $4.17 and alternative fuel sources are a commodity in high demand. Companies have sprung up that do for a fee what Jaia Suri and a few hundred people nationwide used to do for free. They collect the grease from fast food restaurants, filter it, and sell it.

The biodiesel pioneers are having nothing of it. They have become, in the words of this author, Biodiesel Pirates. A gallon of crude soybean oil has a street value of 66 cents, a price that no one can argue with, says the new glistening black market.

I’m not attempting here to tarnish the image of the entrepreneurs that decided to buy and sell used grease. (For that matter, in the days before the modern Thunderdome, grease-hauling was a necessary but thankless task.) And I’m not trying to elevate thieves into heroes–one has no sympathy for the wife slayers in the Australian classic. I’m just saying, that what we are seeing right now in San Francisco is nothing that writer/director George Miller and future mega-star Mel Gibson couldn’t have predicted a long, long time ago in a land very far away.

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We’re all Geeks Now

June 6, 2008

I’m not sure when it happened but comic books are all the rage. Or, as a friend pointed out to me yesterday, not comic books per se, but comic book-related items. Art Spiegelman won the Pulitzer for his graphic novel Maus in 1992 which could be perceived as the beginning of this trend, but I don’t think so. Personally I think it was Michael Chabon winning the Pulitzer in 2001 for The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. While the early 90s had the Batman movies starring Michael Keaton, since 2000 we’ve had a new re-imagining of Batman, we’ve had Superman, The Fantastic Four, The Incredible Hulk, and the Spider-Man movies. And we’ve had, Sin City, Daredevil, Elektra, and of course most recently Iron Man. I’m almost certainly forgetting some.

Umberto Eco’s 2005 The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana heavily features four-color newsprints (real for fake I’m not sure, since I haven’t read it) as integral memories of the protagonist. And, of course, Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao won this year’s Pulitzer (see recommended reading link in sidebar).

I had the immense pleasure of getting to hear Michael Chabon speak at Purdue University a few months ago. Chabon’s piece was themed around the nature of the adult world and the power it has to confine or expand the realm of a child’s imagination.

While he spoke largely of his own memories as a child, his intent was clearly to use those memories to inform the practice of raising his children. The coda to the piece was a bit on the Clock of the Long Now and how a child’s imagination can be hindered by our pessimistic view of the future–a fate he feels he escaped by living in a more optimistic age but that his children are struggling with right now.

Chabon, for those unfamiliar with his work is a long-time fan and defender of “genre fiction:” detective stories, science fiction, fantasy and the like. More than that, many of his own novels are examples of those styles. Even the book hardest to peg to a specific genre, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, is still a paean to the power of superhero comic books–possibly the most genre-y of genres.

Chabon’s most recent book Maps and Legends, from whence much of his lecture was pulled, is reviewed, along with David Hajdu’s Ten-Cent Plague in the latest Times Literary Supplement. Maps and Legends, a collection of non-fiction essays by Chabon is primarily concerned with the constant tug of war between high and low brow art forms (which seems fitting given Chabon’s own bounding between “literature” and “genre” pieces, although he would deny that there’s a separation between the two). Hajdu’s book documents the dramatic lashing out against comic books that took place in the 1950s. The review author, Michael Saler, uses the common thread between the two books to expound on the nature of the culture wars in general and comes to the conclusion that we are in the midsts of some sort of truce between the two opposing sides.