Monthly Archives: February 2008

The I Can Do It Better blog-a-thon, day 2

After catching my breath from yesterday‘s volume of contributions, I am thrilled to report that today we have more than double the number of posts for the I Can Do It Better blog-a-thon! (More than triple, even!)

  • Culture Snob has hit on a brilliant idea in the hilarious article, “Fixing the Oscars: A Modest Proposal.”
  • Culture Snob also points to an older post of equal genius that happens to fit the bill for this blog-a-thon, “A Short Film About Failure” (which uses as its subject material the same film that I used for a different blog-a-thon).
  • The Creepy Inner Thought took my instruction for this blog-a-thon, “choose a well-known movie, book, painting, sculpture, speech, song, performance, or other manifestation of human artistic expression” and interpreted “human” rather liberally in “What about Bob?

For my own day-two contribution I ask you to hark back to Flatliners, chockablock with the hot new stars of 1990 and therefore a key hub in the six-degrees-of-Kevin-Bacon game, which was much more challenging then than it is now. Inevitably, spoilers follow.

The story is about a group of medical school students who begin toying with death, taking turns having their hearts medically stopped by one another in secret late-night sessions and then restarted in tense (heart-stopping! ha ha) will-the-paddles-work-this-time defibrillator scenes. They dare each other to go longer and longer without a pulse, and they all see visions while flatlining, and the farther they go into death before returning, the more their secret pasts return with them! Julia Roberts (“Rachel”) is haunted by her father, who killed himself when she was a little girl. Kevin Bacon (“David”) is haunted by a little girl he bullied as a kid. William Baldwin (“Joe”) is haunted by the many women he’s had sex with and videotaped without their knowledge. Kiefer Sutherland (“Nelson”) repeatedly gets the crap beat out of him by one of cinema’s creepiest little boys ever, and that’s saying something.

One by one each of them comes to grip with his or her past sins. Eventually we learn who the creepy boy is: Billy Mahoney, a classmate of Nelson’s who died accidentally as a result of Nelson’s bullying long ago. Nelson has been carrying his guilt around for his entire life. It is he who first proposes the flatlining “experiments” to his friends, and now it’s clear why: he has a death wish. He feels he does not deserve to live.

And indeed he does not deserve to live, in classical literary terms. That wouldn’t be true if, like David, Nelson simply sought to acknowledge and atone for his childhood behavior. But he doesn’t; nor is he courageous enough to repay his karmic debt by straightforwardly killing himself. Instead he tempts fate, repeatedly and with arrogance, while drawing his fellow students into his reckless, slow-motion suicide attempt. As we know from Greek mythology, the gods honor courage but punish pride (and the film has Oliver Platt as the Greek chorus warning ad nauseam about the sin of hubris).

And yet Nelson survives at the end of the film! In his final flatlining experiment — intending at last to be a suicide, since he’s doing it alone with no one available to resuscitate him — he reconciles with the vision of Billy Mahoney, who goes smiling off to heaven, and is then rescued by his friends, who show up to revive him just in the nick of time. What a gyp! It is a textbook specimen of the tacked-on Hollywood ending.

But the remedy is not so simple. Nelson can’t just expire alone on the operating table. For one thing, it’s anticlimactic: Nelson wants to die, and he tries, and!… succeeds. For another thing, he feels remorse about Billy Mahoney, which is redemptive; perhaps by trying to kill himself — the only way he can think of to apologize to Billy — he earns back the right to live. But the main reason is that if Nelson dies, then he gets what he wants, and even though he may be redeemed for causing Billy’s death, he’s still guilty, guilty, guilty of toying with the natural order of things and endangering his friends. He can’t simply accomplish his goal; the piper must be paid one way or another. But how?

It’s obvious: Rachel, who has a romantic history with Nelson, must die. It doesn’t matter exactly how, as long as it’s related to the flatlining experiments and therefore Nelson’s fault. She is the price that destiny extracts for his arrogance. Let him reconcile with Billy Mahoney, only to wake up and discover his responsibility for a new classmate’s death and the realization that absolution is not so simple. There’s no shortcut. For some sins, “sorry” just doesn’t cut it. Nelson’s penance is to live a long life of tragic wretchedness.

The I Can Do It Better blog-a-thon, day 1

And we’re off! The I Can Do It Better blog-a-thon is officially under way.

As described in the original announcement, the rules for this blog-a-thon are:

  1. Please choose a well-known movie, book, painting, sculpture, speech, song, performance, or other manifestation of human artistic expression.
  2. Describe how it fails to attain perfection.
  3. Describe your remedy.
  4. Publish the article on your blog between February 28th and March 2nd. Be sure to state that you’re participating in this blog-a-thon and include a link to this page.
  5. Send e-mail to <icdib@emphatic.com> to let me know about your post and where it is.
  6. I’ll then list it on the current day’s blog-a-thon page.

No easy targets, please, and no mere technical problems. Stick to movies (et al.) that are already pretty good and require only some creative input from you to realize their full potential.

As submissions flood? trickle? in, they will be listed right here. Meanwhile, my own contribution for day one follows below.

  • [your submission here]

For day one of this blog-a-thon I present an e-mail exchange I had with my sister (abridged) upon seeing Cloverfield, which she had seen a few days earlier. Spoilers follow.

From: Bob
To: Suzanne
Subject: Cloverfield

Saw it tonight. Liked it a lot. But there were a few things that bothered me about it.

Liked a lot: it managed to have both a happy and an unhappy ending.

Bothered me: Rob says into the camera at the end, “If you’re watching this, you probably know more about what happened than I do.” But I don’t. Without some clue about where the monster came from or what it wants, it’s just a lot of senseless mayhem.

Liked a lot: looked and felt exactly like playing a game of Half-Life 2 (or something of that ilk), complete with the eerie atmospherics, homicidal creatures of unknown ability, precarious settings, and conveniently timed glimpses of plot (e.g., the fighters flying overhead exactly as our heroes are clambering across the roof, or the tank getting squashed exactly as Hud runs past it).

Bothered me: not a single “only in NY” moment.

Liked a lot: the mysteriously gory fate of Marlena.

Bothered me: the monster was too invulnerable. That carpet-bombing attack should have finished it.

Liked a lot: its horrifying babies.

Bothered me: Hud’s fate. The monster had been seeing and killing humans for hours by that point, why did it pause to contemplate Hud? It’s as if it knew this was its big close-up (which I could have done without; made it less scary). And why was Hud the only one that it used its teeth on (as far as we know), especially if it wasn’t interested in eating him all up?

Liked a lot: the alternately thunderous and haunting monster-movie music over the end credits that they couldn’t use anywhere else in the film because of the “verité” conceit.

Bothered me: I sort of get why Lily and Hud went with Rob. Sort of. Why did Marlena go?

Liked a lot: the shaky camerawork. 1000x better done and more effective than in Blair Witch, which merely gave me a headache.

Bothered me: the shocker climax, when the freshly carpet-bombed monster conveniently reaches up to swat the chopper out of the sky, even though by that point in the film we’d seen dozens of aircraft fly safely out of the monster’s reach.

How it should have ended: as the helicopter lifts off, a monster baby leaps onto it. They just manage to close the doors in time but the monster baby clings on as the chopper flies high enough to get the nice vantage of the carpet bombing. Then it works its way inside, killing the pilot and crashing the helicopter. Our heroes extract themselves from the wreckage only to see the badly wounded monster staggering their way. It dies! …And collapses on top of Hud, killing him. Mixed emotions for the audience. (Well, not so mixed; Hud was kind of an ass.) But in dying, it sheds about a million of those babies, which fan out across Manhattan. Our remaining heroes take shelter, record their final message, and then Hammerdown; the end.

From: Suzanne
To: Bob
Subject: Re: Cloverfield

Bothered me: Rob says into the camera at the end, “If you’re watching this, you probably know more about what happened than I do.” But I don’t. Without some clue about where the monster came from or what it wants, it’s just a lot of senseless mayhem.

[…] Why does it have to make sense? Why does the story have to be linear and wrapped up in a neat little package for you?

Also in case you hadn’t noticed we are watching the events unfold thru the eyes of those who experienced and documented every second of it. What makes you so special as to be entitled to more information than they themselves had? […]

Bothered me: not a single “only in NY” moment.

Agreed. That would have been a nice touch. […]

Bothered me: I sort of get why Lily and Hud went with Rob. Sort of. Why did Marlena go?

Safety in numbers. […]

How it should have ended: as the helicopter lifts off, a monster baby leaps onto it. They just manage to close the doors in time but the monster baby clings on as the chopper flies high enough to get the nice vantage of the carpet bombing. Then it works its way inside, killing the pilot and crashing the helicopter. Our heroes extract themselves from the wreckage only to see the badly wounded monster staggering their way. It dies! …And collapses on top of Hud, killing him. Mixed emotions for the audience. (Well, not so mixed; Hud was kind of an ass.) But in dying, it sheds about a million of those babies, which fan out across Manhattan. Our remaining heroes take shelter, record their final message, and then Hammerdown; the end.

Yes. Far superior ending. Except I already saw that in Aliens.

From: Bob
To: Suzanne
Subject: Re: Cloverfield

Why does it have to make sense? Why does the story have to be linear and wrapped up in a neat little package for you?

Actually I liked the limited perspective, the non-linearity, the don’t-know-wtf-is-going-on of the movie; in fact they were its biggest strengths. However, you’re wrong about this:

We are watching the events unfold thru the eyes of those who experienced and documented every second of it

We’re actually watching it from the safety of a government data lab. Enough time has elapsed since the events of the video for government agents to re-enter Manhattan and, among other things, discover the camera and log its contents. From that perspective there should have been a bit more information. Even a single scrap more than the characters had would have satisfied me. For instance, the pre-video display could have said something like, “Not to be removed from Crisis Command Center, New White House, Lexington, KY,” which might have suggested that parts of the U.S. too close to the ocean had become uninhabitable, because It Came From The Sea (and so did its friends).

Bothered me: not a single “only in NY” moment.

Agreed. That would have been a nice touch.

What would you have added? For some reason I’m stuck on hot dog vendors; e.g., a hot dog vendor cowers as a monster baby rushes him, and then is surprised to find it going after the yummy stuff in his cart rather than him. He’d start to flee, stop, reach carefully around the monster baby to get his cashbox from the cart, and then run for it. Ha ha! But what would a hot dog vendor still be doing standing by his cart by the time the monster babies show up?

Far superior ending. Except I already saw that in Aliens.

Eh, it could be made fresh with minor variations. What if the terrified monster baby, clinging to the rising helicopter (long enough for us to get our good view of the carpet bombing), called to its siblings and they quickly assembled themselves into a towering chain of bodies to pull the helicopter back down? Whoa, creepy!

From: Bob
To: Suzanne
Subject: Re: Cloverfield

which might have suggested that parts of the U.S. too close to the ocean had become uninhabitable, because It Came From The Sea (and so did its friends)

Which — ooh! — turns it into an allegory about global warming and rising sea levels!

Also, you can’t spell allegory without Al Gore. Just thought I’d mention that.

Ready to rumble

My coworker Kerry is a cofounder of The RumbleBox Coalition, a non-profit dedicated to supplying emergency kits to Bay Area residents for surviving the first 72 hours after a major earthquake (or other disaster). “RumbleBoxes” contain first aid supplies, food, water, a hand-cranked flashlight and radio, and more. The coolest part, and the thing that places me in awe of Kerry, is that RumbleBoxes are distributed free of charge to needy families; funding comes from donations and the sale of RumbleBoxes to the not-so-needy.

I bought mine yesterday and now instead of fearing the next big earthquake I’m almost looking forward to it! If you’re in a disaster-prone area (e.g., Earth) where there’s a chance you’ll be cut off from infrastructure or emergency services for a while, you should get one too.

The Passenger

Many months ago my co-worker Michael Alyn read this six-word story on my blog:

Identity thief cannot escape stolen identity.

and told me it reminded him of the 1975 Antonioni film The Passenger, starring Jack Nicholson. I had never heard of it and I put it on my Netflix queue. I finally watched it just a few days ago.

It was a good movie, though plainly an “art film” requiring a certain kind of engagement by the audience. Most moviegoers today would insist on more backstory to explain the choice of Jack Nicholson’s character to abandon his old, mostly good life on a seeming whim and switch identities with a dead stranger. But it succeeds — especially visually — as a rumination on the idea that no man is an island, no matter how alienated he feels.

However, the famous long tracking shot that is the climax of the film detracts from the viewing experience by conspicuousness of technique. (Spoiler follows.) The camera starts in Nicholson’s hotel room and tracks slowly toward an open door barred by a gate. In the courtyard beyond, various characters can be seen coming and going. There is some indistinct audio and the merest suggestion of what might be happening. All well and good — masterful, actually — but then the camera passes between the bars of the gate and out into the courtyard, pans around to follow some more action, and ends up pointing back into Nicholson’s room from the outside to find him dead.

As a way visually to indicate that Nicholson’s character is at an end, that henceforth his very perspective no longer exists, that we can only contemplate him from without, not from within, the shot is brilliant. But the space between the bars through which the camera passes is clearly too narrow. I cannot view or think about that scene without picturing the camera crew trundling toward the gate and signaling some stagehands the moment the bars go out of frame; the stagehands disassembling the trick gate to allow the camera to pass through; and then the same hands reassembling it and then dashing out of sight before the camera pans back around. The fourth wall is broken — almost literally!

About The Passenger, Michael Alyn told me, “It’s a strange movie; I watched it about 8 or 9 years ago and am not quite sure that I got it. I should probably watch it again and see if it makes any more sense after the second viewing.” I replied, “One strange-movie-requiring-multiple-viewings recommendation deserves another: Primer, the tangliest time-travel movie you’ll ever see.”

The strangeness

Yesterday’s trip to our new corporate overlords (I mean protectors) was disproportionately strange to me, as the entire past two weeks have been, ever since I learned that Microsoft is acquiring my company, Danger.

What’s more natural in Silicon Valley than a rich but hidebound old company trying to stay ahead of the market by snapping up a successful, innovative startup? What could be less surprising? And yet there is a persistent sense of unreality for me that is itself taking me by surprise. When I first heard the news I was momentarily stunned, and then I recovered and said to myself, “OK, that’s that,” and expected to remain cool and unperturbed about it from then on. What other reaction even makes sense? But that’s not how it’s turning out. I’ve been in a kind of a daze. Why?

Obviously it’s due to the echoes, for me, of NCD’s acquisition of Z-Code in 1994 (which also happened mostly in February; which, come to think of it, was the same month that I first interviewed for the Z-Code job in 1992). I was a very early employee at Z-Code and along with the rest of the engineering staff expected that we were on a path to taking the company public. We had a successful product and some lucrative partnership deals, we’d won some industry awards, and we always got good press.

Now that I have a much better understanding of what’s involved in taking a company public, I can see how naïve it was to flatly insist that Z-Code turn down the NCD offer and continue trying to IPO. In 1994 the dot-com boom was still a few years away and Z-Code was having distinct growing pains; it was by no means certain we could remain a leader in the e-mail software market.

But at the time none of this was obvious to us. All we knew was that the upside of this deal was much, much smaller than what we’d been toiling for, and that NCD in particular was an odd choice of an acquisition partner. (They produced X terminal hardware; we produced an e-mail client to run on a huge variety of platforms.) The engineering staff was disappointed and bitter. We opened bottles of tequila and vodka the night we got the news that the deal had closed; it’s the drunkest I’ve ever been. Z-Code’s founder, Dan Heller, who sold out to NCD over our objections, became the focus of our resentment. It has taken me this long to be able to say: sorry, Dan.

It’s hard to overstate the intensity of my emotions when the NCD deal happened. I had committed myself body and soul to a vision that was being allowed to die. It was the biggest trauma I had ever suffered. I threw tantrums. For example, I just found this in my e-mail archive:

From: bobg
To: schaefer, lowery
Date: Wed, 9 Feb 1994 14:26:20 -0800

I am staging a work stoppage. I don’t know when I’ll be back. Bye.

In the end I grew a little more mature, professional, and jaded; the deal went through and the companies combined; and NCD managed Z-Code (and then itself) into the ground over the next few years. Our Z-Code equity translated into just enough NCD stock options to allow me and three co-workers to leave two years later (again, in February!) and bootstrap our own e-mail startup, which still exists today, so, not a bad outcome. But the psychic damage had been done, and my reaction today to being gobbled up by Microsoft is perhaps not so hard to understand.

It goes to eleven

In an early draft of this morning’s blog post about the Danger staff collectively being summoned to Microsoft, I included a quote from the Giant in Twin Peaks — “It is happening again… it is happening again” — as a way to emphasize the strangeness of this whole episode for me (because it is happening again, just like it did fourteen years ago). But I decided to save a discussion of the strangeness for a separate post, and I edited it out.

Also, we recently re-watched one of the kids’ favorite movies: The Court Jester, with Danny Kaye.

Now you might think that these two things are unrelated, and indeed they would be if it weren’t for Ken Jennings, who also has both things fresh in his mind, as he’s blogged about them just in the past couple of days.

They’re not very substantial points of similarity, but taken together I’m calling them the eleventh way (ways 11a and 11b, if you like) that I’m like Ken.

Déjà Mountain View

In 1994, Network Computing Devices bought Z-Code, the startup where I had been working. The staff of Z-Code was bussed from our Novato office down to Mountain View for a come-to-Jesus meeting.

Later today, the staff of Danger will be bussed to Mountain View for a come-to-Jesus meeting with Microsoft.

The first time, there was drunken carousing by the vanquished on the bus, and a videocamera to capture every embarrassing moment. Today there is likely to be drinking and videocameras again but this time there’s also YouTube for broadcasting the embarrassing moments to a global audience.

Gentle giant

It all started when my dad painted a Friendly Lion to watch over my crib when I was an infant.

The painting hung in my room my whole childhood (and as of a few years ago hangs near my bed once more).

Years later I wrote a programming book for O’Reilly and Associates, a publisher known for decorating their book covers with animals. Their popular title Programming Perl is colloquially known as “the camel book,” for instance. I was hoping for a dog on my cover (after all, Alex the dog appears in the acknowledgments), but I was randomly assigned a giraffe. My disappointment was short-lived as the serene and stately giant grew on me.

The next year I went on a trip to San Diego and the famous zoo there. At the giraffe enclosure a guide explained that their youngest giraffe, Ahiti, was only just learning to eat acacia leaves by stripping them from the branch with his teeth. Some of us got a chance to feed Ahiti and help him learn! When it was my turn I held out an acacia branch.

Ahiti bent down, curled his long tongue around the branch, dribbled some surprisingly sticky saliva onto it and my hands, clamped his teeth and pulled his head back. Many of the leaves remained attached, sliding right through his inexpert bite. He tried once or twice more and did better — he was learning! Then it was someone else’s turn. But I was hooked: I had helped teach a baby giraffe to eat. Giraffes were now incontrovertibly “my” animal.

So when Andrea and I were expecting our first baby, the thought occurred to me that I ought to create a guardian animal for him like my dad had for me, and the obvious choice of guardian was a giraffe.

I abandoned my first attempt when I decided it lacked the cartoonish appeal that made my Lion so Friendly:

and settled on something much more stylized:

although we never hung it up by Jonah’s crib in favor of a beautiful custom quilt made for Jonah by a family friend, featuring giraffes and other animals.

As of a few days ago we’re now full circle: Jonah has just drawn his first fully realized giraffe, and it’s amazing.

You heard it here first

The new trailer for Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull features a crate labeled “Roswell, New Mexico 1947,” a clear allusion to the infamous “UFO incident.”

My own speculative Indy IV story, published almost a year ago, included an oblique Roswell joke (“…he conceals the Falcon in the New Mexico desert… a dramatic near-crash during a test flight in 1947″) — which only increases my certainty that when it comes to screenwriting, I can do it better than (or at least as well as) the pros.

Reminder: the I Can Do It Better blog-a-thon

The I Can Do It Better blog-a-thon takes place here starting in two weeks, from February 28th through March 2nd. Please read the original post for details, but for your convenience I’ll reproduce the instructions here:

  1. Please choose a well-known movie, book, painting, sculpture, speech, song, performance, or other manifestation of human artistic expression.
  2. Describe how it fails to attain perfection.
  3. Describe your remedy.
  4. Publish the article on your blog between February 28th and March 2nd. Be sure to state that you’re participating in this blog-a-thon and include a link to this page.
  5. [Updated] Return to this page during those days and you’ll find a form you can fill out send e-mail to <icdib@emphatic.com> to let me know about your post and where it is.
  6. I’ll then list it at the main blog-a-thon page to be posted on February 28th.

Seeya then!