Saturday, April 14, 2007

Yes, this is the coolest news story ever.

Speaking of Godzilla and similar creatures (see previous post below)...



From Science Daily: "Their results may change the way people think about fossil preservation and present a new method for studying diseases in which identification of proteins is important, such as cancer."

Science Daily is very calm about these things. This goddamn Tyrannosaurus rex fossil was 68 million years old! Previously, 1 million years was thought to be the absolute upper limit on the survival of any organic material inside fossilized bones. This is HUGE.

And, when the collagen was sequenced, the closest resemblance was to collagen in chickens.

This is chicken:

This is Tyrannosaurus rex:

This provides yet more confirmation for the now widely accepted hypothesis that birds are descended from dinosaurs. The idea was previously based on skeletal evidence and cladistics analysis... because nobody ever fuckin' thought they'd be able to actually sequence the actual organic material from an actual goddamn dinosaur!!!

Do you realize what this might mean? If this T. rex is not just a gargantuan and almost unrepeatable fluke (a sizeable "if"), then science has been handed an incredible new tool for studying evolutionary relationships among long-extinct and existing animals. The cancer thing is nice, too.

Also, another article I read somewhere says that this could lead to some significant shifts in paleontology paradigms, since a fossil has to be damaged in order to find out if organic material is even in there, let alone extract and analyze it. I smell science journal editorials on conundrums of professional ethics.

So, yes, the "tastes like chicken" jokes have been flying thick and fast online and in news publications in the last couple of days. So have the Jurassic Park references (and no, there isn't any DNA in these samples - it's much more delicate than collagen, so get that idea out of your head, my little Frankensteins). I've tried to weed out the chicken jokes for these links:

Seed Magazine/Agence France-Presse

New Scientist


The ScienceBlogs biology "channel" also inevitably has some interesting commentary. And also inevitably, chicken jokes.

Now excuse me while I wet myself again.

Acknowledgements to and the Cape Breton-Victoria Regional School Board for the images.

Don't drink the water. Or do.

OK, maybe I'm a little late, given that it opened in the U.S. a month ago. But I've been meaning to write about the most joyous movie I've seen in a long time, Bong Joon-ho's The Host. The soundbite pitch is Godzilla meets Jaws meets Aliens meets The Simpsons. In Korean.

Really, I shouldn't have to say anything after that.

But in case you're still not convinced: This is the scariest, funniest, smartest giant-monster-on-the-loose movie I've ever seen, and maybe the only example of that subgenre besides Jaws and the original King Kong that's a flat-out great movie, a classic. (Yes, yes, I like the original '54 Godzilla just fine, but really, it ain't up to these standards.) And if the USA had a sane film culture, people would be packing multiplexes across the country to see it, like they did in South Korea last summer when it ate every box office record whole. When I saw it at the New York Film Festival in October, the enormous, packed auditorium screamed, laughed, cheered and applauded all the way through.

But it's got subtitles. So its American release, while unusually broad for a foreign-language picture, has still been typically half-hearted. Contrary to my briefly entertained fantasies, it hasn't exactly done Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon business, but sturdy little Magnolia Pictures appears to be forging ahead with it - at least the official schedule for the gradual rollout hasn't been cut back noticeably.

In a nutshell, the story has chemical dumping by the American military resulting in an amphibious mutant crawling out of the Han River right in the middle of Seoul to snack and stomp on the residents. Cue the requisite mass panic, military quarantines and grim-faced officials and scientists pronouncing from TV sets. But instead of the usual suspects, the movie centers around an ordinary-at-best family caught up in the chaos - a shlubby, loudly dysfunctional and not terribly bright brood you might not trust to catsit for a weekend, let alone battle a maneating monster. (Thanks to for the family portrait.)

But the Parks are endearing and entertaining enough to carry a movie all by themselves, even if there weren't a creepy-cool creature for them to share the screen with (it doesn't hurt that the family includes my two favorite Korean actors, Song Kang-ho and Bae Doo-na). They're the heart of The Host, the single most important factor making this ordinary-in-outline movie extraordinary. Which isn't to discount one of the most convincing and paradoxically beautiful digital monsters to date; the "look-behind-you" suspense and popcorn-spilling jolts; the snarky satire aimed at the fecklessness of the South Korean government and the arrogance of U.S. power abroad; and the crafty writing, shooting and editing, packed with little surprises and fulfilling all the mandates of the monster movie form while refreshing them at the same time.

While I'm happy that Host is getting any attention stateside, I can't help but feel this is a missed opportunity. I don't (entirely) believe the condescending, self-serving assumption of our media-industrial complex (to borrow a phrase I learned from critic Jonathan Rosenbaum) that the American mass audience just doesn't like reading subtitles. Of course, there's strong resistance to "reading movies," and there are people you'll never convince to do it. But... well, Dances with Wolves, Life Is Beautiful, Crouching Tiger, Hero, The Passion of the Christ, those Klingon scenes from the Star Trek movies...

Anyway, The Host is just the latest Asian import that I feel, maybe naively, could and should have been a crossover success, if it had benefited from bolder and better distribution and marketing (other examples including Shaolin Soccer, the recent work of Hayao Miyazaki, and Infernal Affairs, although the latter sort of did in the form of The Departed). So fight the power... um, don't be another brick in the wall... uh, just go buy your ticket to The Host right now and strike a blow for the blockbuster we deserve.


A NOTE: I've admired the nifty Korean teaser poster reproduced above for a while and finally got it translated, courtesy of Kwangwoo over at the Mobius Home Video Forum's Asian Cinema discussion board. For what it's worth: "Dad! Save me!!" And at the bottom, "Family, Han River, and... MONSTER." (The movie's Korean title, Gwoemul, translates simply as Monster or Creature.)

The image itself is taken from my friend Grady Hendrix's unique and now sadly defunct Asian cinema blog, Kaiju Shakedown. Grady may not be posting anymore, but a couple years' worth of hilarious, informative and irreverent material is still there as of this writing, so do yourself a favor and check it out.

And for good measure, here is an interview with director/co-writer Bong Joon-ho, a neat guy.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Bad seeds and mood swings.

Yesterday I was taking my evening constitutional in Prospect Park - aka the Crown Jewel of Brooklyn, aka my front yard - as is my frequent habit. In the woods near the carousel, I passed going in the opposite direction a youngish mother pushing a stroller. Thirty feet or more behind her was her older hatchling, who was maybe five years old, a Hallmark card-perfect moppet in pink, with brown hair and brown eyes. Taking little notice of me, said moppet stopped, trudged a couple feet off the path and sat soberly on a large-ish rock; I vaguely recall her singing quietly to herself, but may be confabulating this detail. After I passed, two teenage couples strolled by together, and one of the young women paused to approach the little girl, no doubt with some words of adoration or other.

The child acknowledged the approach with the loud announcement, "I'm not in a GOOD MOOD!"

Here endeth the lesson.

[Thanks to Bright Lights Film Journal for the image.]

Sunday, April 8, 2007

Happy Easter.

Thou Shalt Watch Lots of Movies

I'm not sure what to do about movies on this blog, frankly. Sometimes I feel like I ought to have a blog devoted to film, as a number of friends do. Supposedly I write about movies (although I haven't done it for publication or mammon in quite a while) and many of my posts here are likely to be on that subject. I'm considering having a second blog to collect my film-related blatherings, a sort of edited mirror of this one. But once I declare myself a film blogger, am I suddenly obligated to start putting more thought and effort into my rantings? And, as Robin Williams once remarked in a very different situation: "It's like peeing in velvet pants. It might feel lovely, but will anyone want to watch?"

All of this comes to mind because I've just finished half paying attention to an old Passover/Easter weekend tradition, the annual ABC broadcast of Cecil B. DeMille's 1956 version of The Ten Commandments. This was DeMille's last movie, widely regarded as his crowning achivement. It has got to be one of the most popular and most watched works in cinema history, and one of the most beloved among a large segment of actual moviegoers (as opposed to us critic types).* But, Jesus, Mary and Moses, what a cruddy film.

DeMille had been one of Hollywood's behemoths, a sort of Spielberg-Plus without the cinematic instincts, since the silent era. But even by the time he made his first Ten Commandments movie in 1923, he was a staid filmmaker. Judging from the '56 movie, he didn't grow much after that, beyond the inevitable additions of sound and color. Aside from the state-of-the-art special effects, this often seems little more than a filmed stage spectacular, with its ornate and blatantly phony sets, its barnstorming, declarative acting, and camerawork and editing that's... well, not static, downright straitjacketed. And DeMille clings with endearing nostalgia to the mustiest version of the silent intertitle tradition with voiceover narration that takes over any slightly difficult narrative duties and carefully tells the audience what to think and feel about the onscreen events.

Watching this lavishly budgeted church youth group production, it's amazing to remember it was made when the French New Wave was at the starting gate. When Orson Welles had been setting the standard for visual dynamism and artistry in Hollywood cinema for fifteen years. When the late-silent German filmmakers (F.W. Murnau, for example), who brought the moving camera, wordless storytelling and mute emotional expression to new heights of subtlety and power, were already a dusty memory.

So, confession time: I kind of liked it. I think, maybe. Some of the time. Some crud has a certain je ne sais quoi, which is French for "What the hell?" I didn't turn it off, and sat through the whole three hours and forty minutes, although I did other stuff the whole time, including typing up that Harold Camping post below. A lot of its appeal is good old-fashioned camp value, much of it generated by the hypocritical clash of high-minded piety and showbiz luridness, a blend that was DeMille's stock-in-trade. [EDIT AFTER A NIGHT'S SLEEP: OK, actually, I'm not sure I want to follow the standard critical line that this is an amusing hypocrisy on DeMille's part. The Bible, or at least the Old Testament, displays a very similar blend of the lurid and the high-minded, and maybe even for the same reason - a lot of these stories, or versions of them, were first auditioned by oral storytellers who needed to "give the public what they want" in order to hold audience attention. So I'm going to say DeMille is just following the example of his source material.] Another factor is the warm, fuzzy peacefulness of cinematic comfort food; for all its calculated exoticism, The Ten Commandments is redolent of sleepy evenings in front of the TV at the grandparents' place, after a big family dinner. Beyond all that, the film sometimes makes it into the realm of head-snapping lunacy, candy-colored, "ya gotta see it to believe it" surrealism.

All of which is to say that even crud can have its virtues, some of them beyond the reach of mere talent or quality. Maybe I'm the only one who needs to be reminded of that.

*[Irresistible historical footnote with tendentious undertones: At the time of the making and release of the movie, DeMille was deeply involved with a project to place granite Ten Commandments monuments at public buildings around the country, where they continue to inspire trouble and controversial court decisions. More details here.]

(And acknowledgments to for the image of Charlton. A little ironic, considering how little personality he has.)

Saturday, April 7, 2007

Goin' Camping, Part 2

I really should start posting more often than once or twice a month. Anyway...

In our last episode, I was elucidating my fascination with the (anti)showmanship of Harold Camping, media evangelist and head of the Family Radio network. There's plenty more to say about the specifics of his views, which are curious, even by the standards of right-wing evangelical Christianity, though they're certainly not unprecedented. Easter weekend is an irresistible occasion to pick these apart a little bit.

Let's get the obvious stuff out of the way: yes, homosexuality, and sex outside of marriage, and abortion, are terrible sins; yes, Christianity is the one true faith and all others are delusions of Satan; yes, divorce is forbidden and remarriage after divorce is bigamy in God's eyes; yes, women are to be subservient to men, who are the natural leaders in the home and the world. But Brother Camping spends surprisingly little time talking about these social, political and behavioral matters; questions of metaphysics, theology, and Biblical exegesis are his main focus.

I'm fairly sure his apolitical attitude stems partly from a need to protect his organization's status as a religious non-profit. (When a caller asked for his views on the candidates just a few days before last year's midterm elections, he dodged the subject as if it were a blast from a Thompson sub-machine gun.) Another factor, I think, is the context in which he operates: he doesn't seem to deal much with people outside the world of conservative evangelicals. Most of the callers to his show, even those who disagree with him on other matters, take these attitudes for granted, and there's little call for him to defend them. Divorce is a notable, if not too surprising, exception: given its prevalence in our society, he often has to be stern with callers about that particular sin.

But another factor is his sincere conviction, plainly stated by him on numerous occasions, that events happening on this mortal earth are of minor consequence next to the great spiritual struggle between Christ and... well, everything not-Christ. Especially given that we have an expiration date for this mortal world, and it's not far off. It's my understanding that he predicted the specific date of the second coming of Christ and the end of the universe on a couple of previous occasions before I discovered him, but dropped this schtick for a long time. Lately, he's gotten back on that horse, and he's now saying 2011 (I forget the exact date). In 2005 he published a 500-page volume called Time Has an End, which his radio outfit offers for free. Great title, you have to admit.

But "The End is Nigh" is just one of the major motifs of Camping's preaching. There are other points that he loves to harp on even more than the end of the world. Which I would think would be the most important thing.

The entire Bible, Old Testament included, is about Jesus. As I said before, Camping spends quite a bit of his time on scriptural interpretation, both on his call-in show and in speeches at conferences which are recorded and broadcast on Family Radio. But few serious Biblical scholars, not to mention few Jews, would recognize the book he's talking about. Every story and every passage in the Old Testament is a prophecy of Christ, according to Camping. There's no end to the creative ways this guy can interpret this phrase or that character as a symbol - or "picture," as he prefers to phrase it - of Jesus. This seems doubly eccentric when you take into account the fact that Camping, naturally, sees the Bible as literal history down to the last syllable. This apparently doesn't conflict in his mind with his view of the Hebrew scriptures as one big parable foreshadowing the events of the Gospels. This implies a fascinating conception of God as a sort of author who writes with events and people instead of a pen, making the conventions of literary symbolism operate in the real world.

The "Church Age" is over. This is, of course, closely related to the approach of the "endtimes" discussed above. The organized Christian denominations and churches in the modern age are unwittingly in the thrall of Satan, have strayed off the straight and narrow path of Biblical truth, and are leading every single man, woman and child in their denominations into Hell. (I vaguely remember Camping's pinpointing of a specific time when the churches went off the reservation, around the mid-20th century, if I recall correctly.) A first step to salvation must be to "come out of the Church" and find God's way independently through close study of the Bible, by yourself or with small groups of other ordinary believers. (Although it's a little more complicated, not to say incoherent, than that - see the next point below.)

Of course, all of this, like everything that happens, has come to pass because God willed it so - he "has delivered the church into the hands of Satan" (Camping pronounces that particular proper noun with a meticulously enunciated two syllables, almost like two separate words, in a fashion that could conceivably have inspired Dana Carvey's Church Lady act). Furthermore, as usual, he warned us about this, millennia ahead of time, in his word, the Bible. Unsurprisingly, this is the claim that seems to tick off more mainline Christians the most, judging from the sample of his callers that I've heard.

You can't save yourself from Hell - only Jesus can save you. This continues to be the most mystifying of Camping's themes for me, so forgive me if I prattle on for a bit about it. The end of the world and the end of the Church Age are relatively simple and straightforward factual claims, however fantastical and unsupported. The "salvation by God's grace only" idea, at least as expounded by Camping, is such a tight knot of illogic that at times he almost seems to be uttering Zen koans.

The blame for this can hardly be put on Camping alone. At base, he's simply taking an unusually vehement (by today's standards) stand on an ages-old and quite orthodox Christian claim. Essentially, the idea is that we human beings are so wicked and sinful that we are all damned to Hell; all independent efforts to behave in a good and holy way are feeble by comparison with the enormity of our sins, as if we are putting a Band-Aid on a gunshot wound; and that the only way out of damnation is if God deigns to save you through the sacrifice made by Jesus Christ on the cross, a gift he gives to certain of us undeserving sinners, simply out of his enormous mercy. Camping is fiercely clear that nothing - not praying, not doing good works in the community, not going to church every day, not studying the Bible, not groveling and begging - can merit you a place in Heaven; if you're lucky, God simply points his finger (if he has fingers) at you and says, "OK, that one gets in." This is another factor that helps explain Camping's lesser interest in questions of either personal behavior or social trends; the real action in terms of salvation and damnation takes place on a metaphysical plane apart from our everyday life.

I think that at least once, I've heard him explicitly state that if someone is a truly good person, it's because they've been saved by God, something which can happen even when they're a week-old baby or when they're on their deathbed at 102, and have become a "child of God" (his technical term for someone who's saved). Good behavior is a consequence of being saved, not a cause of it. How he reconciles this with his often stated conviction that every human is a terrible sinner isn't clear to me, and that's one internal contradiction in his moral theology. This discussion of goodness seems to be of little interest to him, and to be a mere footnote to his thought - like so many fundamentalists, he's basically obsessed with badness and finds goodness rather dull.

Another obvious, and even larger, objection pops up right away: Why proselytize at all, if human behavior is so futile? Why spread the word as passionately as Camping does, why urge others to do so, why write books and publish pamphlets (the "Does God Love You?" ones you've no doubt seen are at least likely to be from Camping's outfit), why spread Family Radio's ministry into other countries and other languages? Why take any position on divorce, remarriage, homosexuality, etc., or try to convince others of it? Why urge listeners, as he does, to read and study the Bible, to leave the trap of the "local congregations," to beg God for mercy? I've never heard him explain this satisfactorily.

Again, an ultracynical explanation might simply be that Camping has a good racket going that earns him a living (I'm not at all sure how much money he makes off this career, although his bio gives the impression he got plenty of it from a construction business which he used to start up his ministry). As I stated in my last post, I don't find that a terribly convincing explanation, although I don't rule it out entirely.

It's more interesting to note what seems to me the obvious nihilism of Camping's position. As near as I can understand, there's little or no important difference in God's eyes between, say, a relief worker who devotes her life to helping AIDS orphans in a strife-torn third-world country and, say, a soldier who rapes her and tortures her to death... and God might arbitrarily decide to grant salvation to the soldier tomorrow while consigning the relief worker to eternal torment. How anyone who holds such a belief can claim any sort of moral high ground, or even be interested in doing so, is beyond me. But I have to say that Camping's ironclad version of this "salvation by grace" concept simply makes particularly stark the same basic shortcoming in Christianity itself - the mercy we gain through Christ's sacrifice is the point of Christianity in most forms in which it has ever existed, and however you spin it, this seems to make morality, by any reasonable definition, of secondary importance at best. This can be extended to lots of other religions as well, if not most of them - having the right god or gods is the point, and is what defines your worthiness, as opposed to your behavior.

This is, of course, even leaving aside the question of how in the hell Christ's sacrifice is supposed to have saved anyone anyway. No one has ever been able to explain to me how that worked. To paraphrase, I believe, biology professor and notoriously grouchy liberal atheist blogger P.Z. Myers, why did God have to incarnate himself as a human and then have himself tortured to death in order to forgive us? Couldn't he have just forgiven us and saved everyone, himself included, a lot of trouble and agony? "It's a mystery beyond human understanding," many will tell us serenely - which in my book is just an admission of defeat and intellectual bankruptcy.

Well, I could go on forever in that vein, getting ever wider of my real topic here. So I'll leave off theology for the moment. I will soon do at least one more Camping post, where I will narrow my focus, and fail to resist the dubious temptation to pontificate upon the character and psychology of a man I've never met. Sounds like fun, no?