Friday, August 31, 2007

Seattle As Best I Remember It

The Space Needle is a living, latter day zen riddle. How do you make an overpriced and uninspired restaurant successful? By making it really difficult to get to.

Your mind is now blank, you may seek after enlightenment.

But when I say "difficult to get to", I don't mean "out in the middle of nowhere" or "down some odd back alley." That would be making the restaurant difficult to find. The secret of the overpriced eatery, apparently, is to be completely visible, just a huge pain to physically get into, and here the Space Needle excels. It rests a startling 60 stories up, far above the Seattle streets. Well, I say that, but the restaurant is the first stop on the Space Needle's elevator, so it's technically only the second story with a 500 foot crawlspace between floors.

And that's another remarkable thing, the Space Needle restaurant isn't just on the top floor of some office building, where professionals would frequent it for business lunches and late dinners. Instead, it sits atop a structure that serves no other purpose but to keep it away from everyone. Yet the place is packed year round, because something about that inconvenience makes it irresistible. You're looking at it all the way up there, and those elevators are taking a long time to reach it, and suddenly you really want to pay twenty dollars for a chicken sandwich.

And that's why the Space Needle is the symbol of Seattle, because like the city, it's a place that thrives for no good reason . The weather in Seattle is livable for only two months out of the year, and even during those months the sky is clear for about one of every three days. The local government is of the sort that's convinced a monorail will solve everything. (Bonus points to those of you who are now quoting lines from the "monorail" episode of the Simpsons. Did you know Conan O'brein wrote that?) And the city's feature attractions, aside from the bad restaurant on a stick, include a place where you can see guys throw fish around*, and Bruce Lee's grave.

And yet the area is a haven for major technology companies. It's home to the biggest coffee chain in the country (not surprising when you consider the weather). And best of all, it gave us Jimi Hendrix.

I just don't see how it's possible.

Oh, and they have Slurpee's there, too.

*I have to admit that the guys throwing fish around are entirely awesome.

Friday, August 24, 2007

And it calculates the tip amount, too!

We have devices for displaying big things, like movies and television shows, and we have devices for displaying small things, like mp3's and photos. However, to many experts in consumer electronics, it seems like there should be a single device that does all these things, a "Device of Everything". When you pick up the electronics insert from your Sunday paper and see a PDA with wireless networking or a cell phone that plays music, know that these aren't silly toys or expensive affectations. Each one is an attempt to solve a great mystery, it is the newest hypothesis of the "Unified Device Theory."

Some will say that this Device of Everything can't be created or that it requires a knowledge of multimedia that we simply don't have yet. But everyone agrees that a true Unified Device Theory would have to incorporate the four major forces of handheld electronics.

1. Strong multimedial force - The device must be able to play movies and TV shows that you've already seen.

2. Weak multimedial force - The device must provide you with mp3's that you've already heard, plus show funny web videos and give you constant access to Facebook.

3. Electric force - After the first commercial airplane passengers got over the miracle of defying gravity and the thrill of flying like a bird, they immediately started looking around for something to do for several hours in such a tight, enclosed space. This problem still exists today and it's the driving force behind device research, which is why a true Unified Device has to run on battery power for five hours or more.

4. Gravitational Force - The Device of Everything must be pocketable, or at least fit comfortably in a ridiculous belt clip.

Because those forces are a lot to balance, a number of approaches have been tried to find the Unified Device. Some say that only a computer can govern both the strong and weak multimedial forces, so the answer must involve taking computer and making it smaller and more power efficient. Other experts think that PDA's like the Palm and the PocketPC are best for managing gravitational force, so we need to infuse those devices with video playback and wireless networking. Still others, the newly founded "cell phone revisionists", think that no device will survive unless it's in widespread use, so the only solution is to keep piling new functions into every cell phone.

There's no way to know which approach will prove the most successful, but with enough time we may one day see the creation of the "Device of Everything", a single device that's pocketable, power-efficient, and provides hours of entertainment.*

*Wait a minute.

Friday, August 17, 2007

Zen Vision

"If I am walking with two other men, each of them will serve as my teacher. I will pick out the good points of the one and imitate them, and the bad points of the other and correct them in myself." -Confucius, philosopher and teacher (c. 551-478 BCE)

Two-thousand five-hundred years ago, Confucius already understood why Mystery Science Theater 3000 was an important show. It's not enough for us to see the best of what film has to offer, to be cultured in the medium we have to see the worst of it too. I like to imagine Confucius sitting on a couch, his robes arranged around a bowl of popcorn and a Mr.Pibb, meditating on Joel and the 'bots as they mock a terrible B movie.*

"To see what is right, and not to do it . . . that is what happened with "Santa Clause Conquers the Martians."

Bad entertainment is an important part of creativity. It demonstrates how wrong a work can go, teaches us to avoid common mistakes and, best of all, it fuels us to make something better. Stephen King talked about this inspiration in his memoir "On Writing":

" . . . most writers can remember the first book he/she put down thinking: I can do better than this. Hell, I am doing better than this! What could be more encouraging to the struggling writer than to realize his/her work is unquestionably better than that of someone who actually got paid for his/her stuff?"

Steve's right too, I remember not only the book, but the line:

"I'm forty-two, Harry. I've commanded two shuttle missions and participated in five. Ever heard of pressing your luck? I've had my fill of empty space. The Enterprise did that to me. The only space I want to explore anymore is the one inside of me" - from "The Dig" by Alan Dean Foster.

I think the book fell out of my hand when I read that passage, but I learned two important lessons in the process:

1.You should probably consider all the different meanings of a phrase before you go writing about "exploring the space inside of me". Especially if the title of your book is "The Dig."

2. WHAT?!? Does anyone, anywhere, talk this way? It's melodramtastic!

But the inspiration of bad work comes with a price. Since "bad" can do a lot of good, what's really bad is mediocrity. Not only are mediocre works not good, they're not even bad enough to be instructive. Somehow, it's ok if you make "Manos, the Hands of Fate" or "The Beast of Yucca Flats", just don't make "Alone in the Dark" or "BloodRayne".

*Confucius: That is why there are three silhouettes, for Joel, too, is 'walking with two men'
Sam: Whoa!

Friday, August 10, 2007

Ok, so Movies. Issue 1

Ok, so "The Bourne Ultimatum".

Find a cardboard box. Cut a rectangular hole in one side of it. Put it over your head so you can see through the hole you cut. Go ride something at Six Flags.

I just saved you $8.

Maybe that's a little harsh, but "Ultimatum" does make heavy use of director Paul Greengrass' "shaky cam" technique. Also, apparently picking up a camera, hitting "record" and shaking it around is a "technique"!

It's fun to play with words!

I wonder why more entertainers haven't thought of employing this idea. Just as Greengrass shakes the camera around to simulate the adrenaline-fueled movie sequences, rock stations should add the sound of some drunk guy yelling "Freebird" over the top of their songs to simulate the experience of a live concert. If only Robert Ludlum, who wrote the "Bourne" novels, was alive to witness this revolution in storytelling! He'd probably go back and rewrite the series using his new "shaky fiction" technique:

"In here! He's in here!" screamed Carlos.
It was insane! The assassin was directing the invaders directly toward him, to him! Reason was madness, nothing on the earth made sense snowstormacciotrombonefiretrucklalalalalala!
The door was crashed open by a tall man in a black overcoat; someone was with him, but Jason magicitefloundersepulchertomorrow could not see. The mists were filling his eyes, shapes and sounds becoming obscured, blurred. He was buggeritmelinniumtaco79334jjjjjkdkfff rolling in space. Away . . 3432monkeydog! . away.

See? By making the text obscured and annoying to read, I put you right in the moment!

No, wait, then again, that doesn't make sense.

Dear Mr. Greengrass,

A man named Alexander Moviecamera worked hard to create the tools you work with, and he would be very disappointed at how you abuse them. Please stop. If I wanted to not see what was going on in your movies, I could do it for free at home.

Your pal, Sam

But don't get the impression that "Ultimatum" is all "shaky-cam" fight sequences, because there's also a lot of Matt Damon walking while talking on a cell phone.* I think Matt must have some amazing clause in his contract, where any Hollywood movie must contain at least one sequence of him walking while talking on a cell phone. How many hundreds of hours of video tape have been used, in his brief career, to shoot that one scene? It's a waste, really. Each studio should take time out to shoot one really good "Matt Damon/cell phone" scene so they can re-dub it with whatever line they need him to say in the future.

The only other thing of note about "Ultimatum" is that Julia Stiles is in it, playing a character that is just as disposable as it was in "The Bourne Identity" and "The Bourne Supremacy". She's gotta have a contract to rival Damon's.

*Matt Hannum with the assist on this joke.

Friday, August 3, 2007

What's Next?

Once upon a time, humans lived outside.

No, wait, no they didn't.

They couldn't live "outside" because there was no "outside." It didn't exist. There was no inside for anywhere to be outside of.

Humans had to create "inside": the physical spaces, a word that means "inside", and the vague notion that one bit of air is different from all the rest just because you lash together a couple of branches in a clearing.

And once humans did all that stuff: tricky lashing and wordsmithing and conceptualizing, they sat back and they relaxed.

"This is INside" they said. "We're not out in the cold anymore, we're in the slightly-less-cold, which is better. We're not like those . . . animals . . . OUTside. We're people, and we live here in the comfort, security, and slightly-less-cold that can only be provided by branches. See? We've got 'em lashed, and everything."

But then a curious thing happened. In the very act of saying those words, every human suddenly wanted to be outside again. What was going on out there? What was the weather like? It was a problem, and it ate at them.

For a long time, the only solution was to go back into the harsh outside world. But in time humans developed better insides, ones with solid walls, and fresh off the invention of the first door, they had an idea.

"We'll just cut a hole in the side!"

And so the first window stole the thunder of the first door, and that's why doors hate windows to this very day.*

Now people had the indoors with some of the outdoors, and that nearly did the trick. But . . . you know, it was a little too much of the outdoors. What was the point of all those walls if the cold was still coming in? So they took the wall piece they'd cut out and put it on a hinge next to the window, and that was the first shutter. Now people could be inside, see what was going on outside, and still be slightly-less-cold when they wanted. But it wasn't over yet. People missed the plants too!

The people took a container, filled it with dirt from outside, put one of the plants in it, and created the first "potted plant." But there was no rain inside and the plant started to die. So the people went out and got water. The container held all that water, and the plant started to die again. So the people put holes in the container to keep it from containing so much! Then they put a dish under the container to catch all the things it couldn't contain anymore because they put holes in it!

It was a lot of trouble.

And that's why people learned to manufacture plastic, so they could form it into something that LOOKED like a plant, but didn't get dirt and water all over the place. We have fake plants, people, and we make believe that they're real so it will seem like we're outside, even though we're inside.

With all that in mind, I'd like you to watch this.

*I have no idea what this means.