Ubiquitous Surveillance + Advertising?
Bar Harbor
I just got a robo-call ad from Marriott Hotels. I don't get many such calls, so this was unusual to start with. But then it occurred to me -- I was physically inside a Marriott for a few hours on Monday. Did some system note my presence (or at least the presence of my phone number), and therefore figure I was a reasonable marketing target?

Review: Beat the Devil
Bar Harbor
Kestrell and I just watched Beat the Devil (1953). It starts as a caper film, but quickly takes a left turn into comedy. It is sometimes described as a parody of The Maltese Falcon, but isn’t really. It does feature Humphrey Bogart and Peter Lorre, with Robert Morley doing his best Sidney Greenstreet imitation, but the plots aren’t what I would call related.

Bogart is working with a team of four international criminals who, as Kes observed, take the usual “pair of incompetent Shakespearean hitmen” and square the problem. The already significant paranoia of the criminals is raised to a high pitch when they encounter a delightful English woman (Jennifer Jones) with a habit for confabulation. Kes thinks that she is the grown-up version of the niece from Saki’s short story “The Open Window” :-)

Kestrell also pointed out that much of the confusion in the film comes from the various characters assuming that Humphrey Bogart’s character is, well, a typical Humphrey Bogart character. In this film, he’s much more of a “go along to get along” kind of guy, but people keep expecting him to be doublecrossing and seducing.

Hmmm, this seems to be more Kestrell’s review than mine. Oh well, I can the state on my own behalf that I greatly enjoyed it. Recommended.

Masquerade Metaphysics
Bar Harbor
Talking with rickthefightguy recently, he mentioned why he had stopped playing Vampire: The Masquerade LARPs. It was after the second time that he had built up a character with a great deal of power, both in terms of combat and politics, had started arguing that The Masquerade was a stupid idea which be abandoned, and had that character summarily killed by an extremely powerful NPC. Sensing the pattern, he declined to go through it again.

Now, on one level, it’s obvious why that happened. When a player attempts to undermine one of the very foundations of the game world, the GMs HAVE to stop that from succeeding. And The Masquerade IS one of the foundational points of the game; its presence in the title is no accident. It marks a genre distinction, between Secret History and Alternate History. In a Secret History setting, if you’re willing to suspend your disbelief enough, you can just barely believe that the details of the setting might actually be true. By contrast, an Alternate History setting is obviously and irrevocably not the world we are living in. A Secret History can become an Alternate History, but it’s a very significant one-way change. An author might be willing to make that change for a setting of his (Charles Stross has done so twice so far), but GMs who are running a licensed setting are going to be understandably reluctant to make such a large and fundamental change to that setting. Even if they were willing in theory, making such a change is a LOT of work, for both GMs AND players.

Of course, all that is a Doyle-ist explanation, and I far prefer Watsonian ones whenever possible. So I started considering possible solutions from that angle.

The Masquerade IS, on the face of it, a pretty stupid political idea. It carries very high costs for very arguable benefits. But what if it WASN’T a political idea at all, what if it was an existential one? Not prescriptive, but descriptive? Posit a world where the Rules of Reality (a superset of the laws of physics) prevent vampires, werewolves, etc. from being acknowledged by society.

I have read a number of time travel stories where, when you try to change history, you can make small local changes, but the timestream “cancels them out” with a series of what would normally be considered low probability events. This is just a science-fiction gloss on one of the classic conceptions of Fate, or how one has to pay the appropriate “price” in a magical bargain. Technically, you can avoid fated outcome X, but that will just result in outcome Y, which is much worse. A really skilled sorcerer, who has anticipated many of the possible outcomes, might avoid X, Y, and even Z – but that just leads to an Omega which is nigh-apocalyptic.

So, imagine that that is what The Masquerade is designed to avoid. Before it was established, there may have been incidents where powerful vampire clans attempted to reach some sort of stable political arrangement with humanity at large, only to have those clans entirely wiped out by mysterious accidents. Maybe not just clans, but one or more entire mythological SPECIES. As soon as this pattern is understood, there is a strong incentive to create political structures that will prevent anything like it from happening again. The rank-and-file wouldn’t even have to understand the true reasons for The Masquerade, as long as they scrupulously followed the rules. (It occurs to me, I’ve just invented a Secret History of a Secret History. Yay, recursion!)

In a world like this, when a character like Rick’s started getting too powerful and threatening The Masquerade, instead of killing him outright, some of the clan elders would quietly take him aside and tell him what was really going on. In most such cases, the troublemaker would cease to cause trouble. (I’ve been rereading H.P. Lovecraft, and a very similar situation occurs in “The Shadow Over Innsmouth”. When the US military does a lot of violent, top-secret stuff in the vicinity of Innsmouth, at first, a bunch of newspaper reporters are very inquisitive about it. They are quietly told at least a piece of what’s really going on, and why they shouldn’t write about it, and they mostly shut up.)

As a further thought experiment, how might the Rules of Reality have come to exist in such a way? I’ve come up with one model, though doubtless there are others possible. Consider a universe that begins much like many primitive creation myths: at first there is formless chaos, but eventually gods coalesce out of it. The first generation of gods don’t do much except (perhaps accidentally) create the second generation of gods, which promptly overthrow and/or kill the first generation, and start building the physical universe out of their remains. This early version of the universe contains mankind, but is still pretty chaotic and “magical”. One God can declare something about reality and make it true, but another God can easily come along and declare something else, or even the opposite.

Eventually, more generations of gods happen, getting more sophisticated over time. As these gods gradually form more complex and stable societies among themselves, they begin to realize that a universe where the nature of reality is in constant flux is “bad for business”. The majority faction of the gods decide to impose a consistent Physics on the universe (possibly some time during the Roman Empire). But, though they are a majority, there exists enough powerful dissent that compromises must be made. Certain entities (e.g. vampires) which do not actually obey the laws of Physics are allowed to be “grandfathered” in – with restrictions. They are only allowed to exist on the fringes; if their presence became known, it would be a threat to Physics, which is not permitted.

Maybe what happens to a sufficiently determined vampire who avoids the vampire legal system and attempts to go public, is that he discovers, much to his surprise, that he is NOT a vampire, but an ordinary human being except for some broken brain chemistry that has driven him insane…

Dream Snippet, Steven Brust edition
Bar Harbor
Vlad Taltos was arguing with Verra. As a result, he decided to go hide out in his highschool bookstore, largely on the theory that at least it should take someone interesting to find him there.

He's not there long before he's sent out front to organize some books ("Out of all the possible orders, you want just 'alphabetical'? Boring, but OK...") He'd only been at it a short time when a group of Men In Black come in, claiming to be some sort of Interdimensional Book Police. But Vlad sees something wrong with their IDs, so he realizes that these are actually here illegally, making them Rogue Interdimensional Book Police...

The Night of the Hunter
Bar Harbor
A few days ago, kestrell decided that she was finally up for watching The Night of the Hunter (1955), so we did so. I am happy to report that she liked it about as much as I do. In fact, I like it better on a second viewing than I did on the first. So, though I wrote about it then, I find I have more to say now.

It’s probably Robert Mitchum’s greatest performance, and it was certainly Charles Laughton’s greatest directorial job – okay, okay, it was his ONLY directorial job, but it would’ve been an extreme high point for even a lifelong directorial career. For all that, when released it was a commercial and critical failure. Why? One answer is that the studio failed to give it much marketing push. But that’s just one symptom of what I think is the underlying problem: the film has no interest in sticking to a genre formula. You could call it a Crime Drama – but there is very little of either crime or punishment actually shown. You could call it Horror – but there is no blood and no cat-scares. You could call it Americana – if you could overlook all the tributes to German Expressionism. So much of the emotional tone is carried by characters singing that you could call it a Musical, except that it clearly isn’t THAT. Many reviewers use the phrase Fairy Tale, which isn’t 100% wrong, though certainly not how it was marketed. If you put a gun to my head and forced me to name one single genre that this movie is, I’d say Children’s Movie…

Yes, Children’s Movie. Easily 90% of the movie is through the viewpoint of one child or another. The film’s thematic concerns are largely about how marginalized people cope with the existence of powerful oppressors – with the ultimate examples being children and adults. Its message, both shown and told, is that though they are oppressed, children yet have power that adults lack. Of course, that’s not a message that most parents are really gonna be happy with…

I suppose you could make a good argument that the genre here is Suspense; the film certainly contains a great deal of that quality. But there is very little Mystery in it. You know almost before he appears on-screen that Robert Mitchum is a serial killer. There is a hidden MacGuffin, but it’s only hidden for about half an hour, and revealed almost offhandedly. On first viewing, I thought that an odd and clumsy directorial choice, but since then I’ve changed my mind. I think Laughton hides MacGuffin, not to create mystery, but to properly PACE his suspense. If we knew the location of the MacGuffin too early, we would worry about it being accidentally uncovered during scenes in which Laughton wants us concentrating on other matters.

This is far from the only such example. Laughton’s storytelling is extremely straightforward on the surface, but deceptively complex beneath. The basic point of every scene and character would be immediately clear to a typical eight-year-old*. But re-watching, with an eye towards the storytelling mechanics, you can see how almost every scene in the first half is doing at least double duty and often more; helping reinforce or foreshadow plot traits and characteristics that will be important later in the film.
(* The one exception is, tellingly, a scene where the young boy viewpoint character has just been woken from a sound sleep in unknown and threatening circumstances.)

The movie also has a fascinating relationship with religion. On the one hand, Robert Mitchum is a preacher who is also a serial killer. Late in the film, the “good Christian people” whom he has preached to become a vicious mob, howling for his blood – arguably, embracing religion the same way that he always has. So you might think this movie was opposed to religion. But then, you have Lillian Gish’s character, an ACTUAL good Christian: an old woman who takes in and cares for unfortunate orphans, and reads Bible stories to them. She would be treacly – if she wasn’t also a terrifying crone! And yet, beneath her hardened exterior, she has a true understanding of Charity. At one point, she sees a pair of young lovers canoodling in the marketplace. (Pause while I look up the quote…) “She'll be losing her mind to a tricky mouth and a full moon, and like as not, I'll be saddled with the consequences.” On the one hand, she clearly disapproves, but on the other, she IS willing to be “saddled with the consequences”. Indeed, she has already proven so: at least one of her “wards” has a loving mother who works near that marketplace – by implication, a single mother who is unable to care for her own child by herself. A little later in the film, Gish surprises us again with her reaction(s) to one of her girls having gotten in trouble (another of those scenes where the eight-year-olds are probably going to miss some of the complexities).

Despite the top level of the film being (or at least seeming) completely straightforward, it’s full of surprises. Not surprises of plot, but of image, or moments of character. Things I had never seen before, nor even realized that I might see. I’m very glad I did, though. Very Highly Recommended.

Dirty Rotten Scoundrels: a study in remake
Bar Harbor
Recently, Kestrell and I watched a related pair of movies: Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (1988) and the film it is a remake of, Bedtime Story (1964). The comparison was FASCINATING.

Dirty Rotten Scoundrels has been a favorite of mine since I first saw it in its original theatrical run. Michael Caine and Steve Martin play a pair of con men who cross paths, compete, cooperate, and then compete harder. Glenne Headley enters the film about halfway through as the ingénue that they compete over. Barbara Harris has a small but delightful part as a mark early in the film.

When I first saw Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, I wondered if it was a remake of an earlier film (in those pre-Internet days, it was nontrivial to find out). Though my film knowledge was not encyclopedic, I had seen enough movies starring David Niven to recognize that Michael Caine was obviously imitating him in his performance. And, indeed, the original movie, Bedtime Story, did turn out to star David Niven. What I was NOT expecting, was that Steve Martin’s performance turned out to be significantly informed by that of – Marlon Brando! As near as I can tell, Frank Oz (director of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels) made a deliberate choice to “keep everything that worked” from Bedtime Story when remaking it. It’s pretty clear that both leads studied the performances of the original actors.

This attitude of “keep what worked” applied on a script level as well. Something like 50% of the dialogue is VERBATIM the same, and even where it isn’t, the majority of the action is the same. Sometimes this goes so far as to use the same staging and camera angles.

I don’t want to give the impression that Dirty Rotten Scoundrels is a carbon copy. Indeed, I would say that it is a MUCH better movie. Not that Bedtime Story is bad, but the remake improves it in almost every way. What’s fascinating is that the degree of similarity is close enough that you can see lots of places where Bedtime Story COULD have gotten a laugh (or a bigger laugh) and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels DID. You could use these two films as a master class in film comedy – and the art of the remake.

Well, THAT was a different cooking experience
Bar Harbor
One of the foods I like to eat frequently is Campbell’s chunky soup (various flavors). Part of why I like it is that it’s dead simple to prepare. Put it in a bowl, cover the bowl with wax paper so as not to spill, microwave for three minutes, eat. The soup being somewhat thick, and the heating happening very quickly, sometimes odd pockets of pressure build up, and I will hear a BANG noise from the microwave. I’m used to it, it doesn’t mean anything other than perhaps a minor spill.

Just now, however, I heard a much louder bang than normal. I quickly got up to stop the microwave. Opening it up, I discovered that the bowl had managed to overturn itself!

Oh well, the microwave was due for cleaning anyway…
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Bell Book and Candle – and Other-ing
Bar Harbor
Majorkestrell and I recently re-watched Bell Book and Candle (1958). It’s a mostly fun, if problematic, romantic comedy with Jimmy Stewart essentially playing Jimmy Stewart and Kim Novak playing a sophisticated modern day witch who casts a spell on him. Also a great supporting cast, including Jack Lemmon (on the bongos!), Elsa Lanchester, Ernie Kovacs, and Hermione Gingold.

The major problematic aspect is that, by the rules of this movie, witches are literally “not human” and are incapable of love. If a witch does fall in love, then she loses all her witch powers and “becomes human”. Naturally, lots of Wiccans and Wiccan-friendly people take offense at this. The offensiveness actually gets worse, in my mind anyways, once you realize that “witch” is a wafer thin metaphor for “homosexual”. Though I admit it does lead to some very funny moments, such as when Ernie Kovacs (playing an alleged expert on magic) confidently tells a room full of closeted witches that he can “just tell” if someone is actually a witch.

As we watched, I often felt myself strongly reminded of another movie which on the surface looks very different, but actually isn’t: Chasing Amy (1997). Both of them are about a straight white guy who has troubles with his romantic relationship, because she’s queer. They even both feature scenes where the woman loses support from her queer community due to her new relationship.

Of course, the endings are quite different. In 1958 Hollywood, the only possible “happy ending” to such a story is for the queer woman to become a normal straight woman. Chasing Amy has a more honest ending: the relationship ends up failing because the straight white guy, despite having a somewhat-raised consciousness, is fundamentally unable to cope with someone so outside his experience.

I do like both movies. But they do make me long for more stories that show the possibility of happy relationships between two people who celebrate their differences. Season two of Sense8 can’t come soon enough!

Lovecraftian Politics
Bar Harbor
Probably the most famous words that H.P. Lovecraft ever wrote for the opening to “The Call of Cthulhu”:
The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.
As Alan Moore pointed out in a recent interview, fundamentalist preachers and politicians seem to have validated that last sentence as prophecy. “A new dark age” is exactly what they are trying to bring about.

Two Interesting Semi-Noir Movies
Bar Harbor
kestrell and I recently watched a pair of interesting movies, both of which fall roughly under the category of film noir, though each with its own interesting unique properties.

The Big Clock (1948) is a classic noir story of a man who, through a series of what seem like innocuous bad decisions, ends up in danger of losing his marriage, his job, and his life – not necessarily in that order. The tension builds beautifully, as the protagonist is forced to draw the net tighter and tighter on himself.

That tension is beautifully counter pointed by moments of screwball humor. Elsa Lanchester appears in a supporting role which initially appears to be one scene and one note, but her character keeps showing up, adding new layers and stealing scenes shamelessly and hilariously. She even gets the last line of the movie, indicating how, though things veered close to Shakespearean tragedy, we arrived finally at a happy ending.

Also of note in in the supporting cast is Harry Morgan, who normally plays such nice characters. Here, he scared the crap out of us, despite – or perhaps because of – not having any dialogue. He mostly just stands around being menacing, very effectively. It was quite some time, actually, before I figured out what his approximate role was; the other characters see him, but don’t talk about him. (The film overall does a fine job of avoiding “as you know, Bob”; there is – and needs to be – a goodly amount of exposition, but it is delivered very deftly.

The Big Clock also has strong elements of satire, specifically of the publishing industry. Kes thought that the heavy (Charles Laughton) was a thinly veiled William Randolph Hearst, but some post movie research showed that it was specifically targeting Henry Luce, publisher of Time Magazine.

Mystery Street (1950) was an interesting companion piece. It stars Ricardo Montalban as a Latino Police Lieutenant (!) working on a murder case. This may well be the first example of what we would now call a forensics police procedural – though apparently they haven’t yet invented the word “forensics”. Montalban and his partner spend an amusing scene wandering around Harvard University, looking for the department of “Legal Medicine”. Oh yes, this one is also set in Boston, so has some local interest.

The movie does an excellent job of indicating just how vast an amount of work goes into solving a murder, in both the traditional ways, and using the new “Harvard” methods – but does so in a way that doesn’t actually take much screen time, so the pacing zips along.

Coincidentally, Mystery Street *also* has Elsa Lanchester in a supporting role. Not quite as delightful a role as in The Big Clock, but still very good. She’s a great actress and always fun to watch.

Mystery Street has a lot of subtext (and sometimes outright text) about social divisions, and the effects of class, race, and gender on how people survive.


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