Saturday, March 30, 2013

Robot and Frank

I've been a robot fiction devotee since I read Asimov's I, Robot as a kid.  His Robots of Dawn is still in my top 5 novels evar.  Thus, I will see about any movie that has robots in it.

TLD: For example, I tried to watch the Jean Claude Van Dammit flick Cyborg recently, and just couldn't hang with it past 15 minutes.  Oh well. 

Finally carved out the hour and a half to see Robot and Frank.  I ended up enjoying it by the third act because they finally tap into the built-in pathos robot stories seem to have, but it started sloooow.

I mean, the robot arrives about 10 or 15 minutes in so we get to the story quickly enough, but there are quite a few first-time director/film school mistakes like one scene involving a car driving past us, down the road, and around the bend, but with a funky/showy low angle (for what amounts to no reason). Why are such shots ever included in a flick? If you need to pad the run-time, do it with something unique to the movie, or at least with a character doing something.  And, hey, if you have a robot as a character, perhaps watching the robot do things would've been a better way to use up that minute of our lives.  They also telegraph a heavy foreshadowing that does not pay off, which makes me wonder if during a script revision the payoff was removed and no one noticed. 

As I watched, I suspected that the person in the robot suit was a child from the movements, and frankly, the choreography was lacking, or the actor (puppeteer?) did not have enough practice time.  You can actually see the actor move from a typical human resting pose to an Asimo-like stance when he (it's voiced by a man, so we assume "he") prepares to walk.  Come to find out it's a female dancer in there, which surprises me, since most dancers take movement seriously.  An interview with the director reveals that for a couple days of the 20-day shoot, there was in fact a male child in the suit, so perhaps those were his scenes.  But, folks, if you're gonna make a robot movie, the robot's movements have got to be right, or it stands out like a mis-painted frame in an animation.

Outside of the flawed, puppet-like movement, the robot is a charming character. Deeply contrary to Asimov's robot rules, which most fans take as rote, this robot does not have a strict moral compass outside of caring for his charge.  There are hints he wouldn't physically harm anyone, but he has no problems with helping Frank resume his primary occupation as a thief. 

The movie itself is non-committal about the fact that Frank is a career crook. We even learn he was a bad father and his wife left him years ago.  The personality he presents in the film presents no reason to like him, either. 

This greatly diminished the film for me.  If I'm going to watch a movie about criminals, bad guys, anti-heros, etc., the movie needs to somehow let me know that it knows they're the bad guys, too, and none of us are OK with that.  Or the guy has to be so charming, we believe anyone would care about him, etc. etc.  But here we're presented with a grouchy, bland jerk in his decline.  Perhaps that's why the title is Robot and Frank and not the other way around.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Forking Dongles

As an IT guy, the first time I heard the word "dongle" my very first question was: "Is that really what it's called?"

Many things in IT are a euphemism or a verbalization of an acronym.  For example, about a decade or so ago, you'd hear sober women and men say the term "wizzy wig" out loud in meetings with completely straight faces and with not just a little gravity.  It was the (American) verbalization of the acronym WYSIWYG, which means What You See is What You Get.

See, popular software programs (now "applications" or "apps") like WordPerfect presented you with a big expanse of blue screen with a few ASCII (pronounced "ass-key," no kidding) characters (i.e. letters) indicating cursor position status, and the actual words you typed on the screen looked nothing like the final printed document. (For a brief moment in time, the blue screen was good, which is likely why it was villainized by a competitor.) Most office assistants took that in stride and after seeing a couple print-outs had a pretty good idea how it would look on the page.  But most folks were flummoxed by that, having only used typewriters where what you saw was how it would always be.  Thus, in the software world, those who could make the screen match the sheet of paper were considered pretty cool, and WYSIWYG was the acronym that meant your software did that.

So, this guy points at a plasticy metalish nub hanging off a port on the computer and says, "Oh, and make sure you have the dongle when you load that software, because it will only work when it detects the dongle."  So I asked the question in the first paragraph, knowing I would have to ask one of the ladies in the office for the dongle, because it was on most computers, but only the inserter of the dongle could get anywhere ... you see my point.  I hoped it was an acronym, or a euphemism, or something, but no, that was the word, and the only word.  So, for the next couple years, I would walk up to the keeper of the dongle, always a woman, and ask for it, and she would meet my eye when she handed it to me with that special knowing smirk, and eventually I got comfortable enough to return it.

TLD: Someday I might tell you the story of the time one of the ladies in the office had placed on her desk a valentine's day gift of a candy encased in a keepsake container, and before I could realize what I was saying, I was already walking away with every Human Services-trained lobe of my brain screaming: did you REALLY just say, "That's a nice box you've got there, [her name]."?!?!! When I looked back in horror, expecting her to already be lifting the receiver to dial HR, she just gave me the most devious, all-knowing smile, and just said, "Why, thank you."  For the rest of the day, my compadres asked me if I was OK, because my face was alarmingly red.  But I don't really want to tell you that story, because I could've been loading a cardboard box with my personal things in front of an armed guard within minutes, and that was the job that launched my career.

This week I was at a big tech. conference, sitting in a huge crowded room on chairs that only grade-schoolers would have thought wide enough, that suffered from this brain-dead design where the metal bar at the top of the seat protruded a solid inch beyond the back padding, so by day two everyone was squirming to find a place on their back that didn't have a horizontal bruise in order to lean back.  Eventually everyone just threw one arm over the chair, or slide so far forward that leaning back was not an option.  But anyway, there we were, trying to hold teeny cups of coffee directly in front of us while someone at the front of the hall tried for an hour to find the sweet spot on a tiny mic so that s/he wouldn't rock the room with shock waves upon hitting a percussive consonant while trying to force the computer to show the correct slide.   A blatant dick joke would've likely been welcome. (Like, "Why do you have all those horizontal bruises on your back?"  "Well, ....[insert dick mark joke here].")

I return from my conference to find out that at another one, some dude lost his job because he used the word "dongle" behind a woman who, even though her job was developer evangelist, thought the snigger in his voice when he said the word was a sexist dick joke. (Every single woman who ever handed me a dongle at work had that snigger in her eyes, I may have mentioned.) So, she took his picture and tweeted it - it's called a "public shaming" in current journalistic nomenclature - and then contacted the conference officials and had him removed.  So, he lost his job, and he's got three kids.  Then she lost hers over the backlash (apologies to the esteemed Franzen over using "then" as a conjunction).  Oh, and much wailing and gnashing of teeth on the internets.  Consensus appears to have settled on this being the best, most level, context-rich one.

On the way home from work that day, I stopped to buy a sixer of beer, and on the counter they had a new product pre-made in shot glasses on the impulse-buy area named "porn shot."  I pointed at it and told the two ladies behind the counter, in about a verbal tweet or two, the story above, and they were aghast. "What's the world coming to?" was their most repeated reaction.  I wisely chose not to riff on or belabor what the most common use of the word "coming" was in popular media these days.  Who knows who's listening?

Bios and Babes

Read Rod Stewart's Rod: The Autobiography and Peter Criss' Makeup to Breakup: My Life In and Out of Kiss.

I've gleaned that my interest in rock bios spawns from a deep curiosity to know what is was like to be the center of a universe, where your songs are absorbed into lives across the globe, (nearly) everyone loves you, everything is free, and obtaining sex with whomever is effortless as a breath.

(Now, mind you, I wouldn't want that kind of life. For honest and true. I much prefer my quiet, middle-class, nearly anonymous life with the grand pleasures it offers through family, friends, pets, and entertainments.)

Rod's autobio can be summed up "yeah, it's great to be a rock star" and Peter's "how I spent most of my moment as a rock star completely pissed off."

Rod surprisingly has a charming, breezy writing style. I laughed hard every chapter, and smiled on nearly every page. Here's one of my favorite quotes (page 184):
Mick Jagger -- speaking, I assume, for and on behalf of Bianca -- made a tentative inquiry about the possibility of a little light partner-swapping with Dee and myself. Well, I suppose it's always nice to be asked, and comforting to know that you are in someone's thoughts, but the answer had to be no.  Partner-swapping wasn't my scene, and it certainly wasn't Dee's.
It's very satisfying, too, because he does not flinch from addressing anything you may have heard about him: the care and feeding of his hair, his relationship with ex band members (think Jeff Beck), the infamous incident where his stomach was supposedly pumped, and the first clear account of how the Plaster Caster gals did/do their work, which all others have glossed over: they fellate the subject.  Rod and Ron Wood both declined immortalization because the Casters reportedly display their more towering works as introduction to entice the proposed member to join the collection. The more modestly endowed Rod and Ron decided they didn't want that fact recorded in the life-size memento that would be dwarfed on the eventual shelf.

The most touching thing in it, though, is his insecurity about his music, and how hard it is to deal with the worry that what he's doing may not be good.  He sometimes had to be alone or with only a couple close confidants to record a vocal.  Since his persona is balls-out confidence, it was surprising that he admits it's just a stance.

Peter Criss has a bit in common with Ringo in that Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley had most of the concept of KISS worked out prior to hiring Peter and Ace Frehley (save for the name and the makeup). He killed in his audition for the band and was hired on the spot.  The original record deal provided an equal 4-way split of the band's earnings, so it had the illusion of a democracy.

Yet, you are rarely hired into a democracy, and when royalties from song writing started coming in, Gene and Paul asserted their leadership of the band, and Criss is still pissed about it.  So, even though he claims happiness today, his anger comes through every other page and it seems to have poisoned his life more than it should have.

Highlights are: the famous soaring guitar solo in "Detroit Rock City" was done by Bob Ezrin, their wiz-kid producer, as Ace just wasn't feeling it that day (which Frehley freely admits in his appropriately spacey but somewhat boring autobio); the aroma of female pudenda that permeated the rooms where groupies would gather while awaiting pleasures with the band, especially Gene who would stay up all night and gather two new girls about every two hours; Paul, while often directly observed dipping into the female groupie pool, was also sometimes so wasted that when his gay groupies would start advances, one of the other band members would intervene and get Paul to his room alone; Ace was very fond of masturbation, and would commence at will, regardless of where he was - a street corner, in a tightly packed band van, and so forth.

I inadvertently listened to the whole book on CD of Neil Young's Waging Heavy Peace. I picked it up because I was waiting for the book and wanted to get a start on it.  A week later I find I've listened to the whole thing.  One realization is I would not have managed to read it because his prose is as meandering as his guitar solos.  While I love his guitar solos, I could only enjoy his prose read aloud.  So that's my recommendation: listen to this one if you're a fan.

While rock fame and the ensuing life fascinate me, so does the flip-side of having tried, and almost making it, but stardom - or at least a long career - did not materialize.

Two artists I discovered after they resumed private lives were the Dance Hall Crashers and Alana Davis.  All their sites and fan sites have begun that weird erosion that takes place on web sites as technologies, web code and browsers upgrade.

Usually, a bit of googling will turn up some bread crumbs, and the two lead singers of the Dance Hall Crashers can be located: one is still singing in local bands while the other one has only a twitter feed, which may not even be hers.   Alana Davis has completely evaporated into the ether, apparently.

So, what must it be like to have had a couple hits, some radio play, a fan base, and then it's just over? I would imagine it's mostly life as usual, with some occasional small twinge, like the one you get when you remember the one who got away.  Carrie Fisher weighs in on that frequently, but she's still kinda famous and her mental illness colors it so much, it's hard to sort out the weltschmerz from the manic and the depressive.

I harbor a secret hope that maybe I'll have the opportunity to ask one of those three ladies that very thing.  If I do, I'll post it here.

Whilst mulling and researching for this post, I came across this article about Steve Perry of Journey.  I see in here echos of all of the above: Rod's insecurity, Criss' anger, Neil's elder statesman-ship, and life after fame:
"I don't want (any new album) to have pressure," Perry told Billboard in a late 2011 interview, "because I'll worry about it sucking, and then what am I gonna do?"
Finally, here are some related thoughts from an old post (scroll down to where I start talking about Phil Collins).
Update: Cracked has an article on what some rock stars did after.