Arsenic And Old Cake

October 29, 2013

On October 28, 1922, a man named William Wrey Sterrett died at Bryn Mawr Hospital in Philadelphia. He seems to have been the quiet type in life; an accountant for Price Waterhouse, he lived an uneventful life with his wife, Martha Campbell Sterrett, in Devon, Pennsylvania. The couple had been married for eight years and had no children. Nor, apparently, did they have an extensive social life: the friends dredged up by newspaper reporters all had kind words to say about him but most of them centered around how unassuming he was. “A home type,” several friends told the Chester County Daily Local News. In an article printed on October 31, The Philadelphia Inquirer quoted more anonymous friends as having “nothing but praise for the dead accountant … while not a person of the kind that made idle boasts, he was always willing to enter into discussions of various sorts, and his advice was generally regarded as good.”

Apart from these modified raptures, the only other distinctive pieces of information about “the dead accountant” were that he and his wife had just bought a new house and that they also liked to go antiquing on the weekends. So far, so unremarkable — until Thursday, October 26, 1922. That afternoon, Mrs. Sterrett picked up the mail at the Devon post office and discovered that she had received a package “about the size of a pound candy box” (according to the October 29th Daily Local News), addressed with a typewritten label to Mrs. W.W. Sterrett. It had no return address but had been postmarked in Philadelphia. The postmistress, Mrs. (or Miss — the papers differ) Gillies, turned out to be happy to share Mrs. Sterrett’s reaction with newspaper reporters. Under the subheading “NERVOUS AT POST OFFICE,” we learn that Mrs. Sterrett, speaking in an “excited manner” speculated on the contents of the box and said that she would hurry home at once to see what it contained. However, “the box remained unopened until the arrival of Mr. Sterrett on a later train, and when the box was uncovered it was found to contain a piece of brown cake known as `devil’s food’ and it was covered with a pink icing. Mr. Sterrett partook freely of the cake, but Mrs. Sterrett, it is said, did not eat as much.” (Newspaper accounts of the cake would differ: according to The New York Times and The Philadelphia Inquirer, both publishing on October 29th, the cake was golden and, as the NYT stated, “had the appearance of having been cut from a large wedding cake.” Later, the Inquirer occasionally referred to the cake as having been devil’s food. One thing was certain: the Sterretts had between them eaten every crumb of it).

“What’s In The Box?”

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Pushing Avatar off a Red Cliff

December 20, 2009
Avatar the Film

Zoe Saldana in Avatar

Hype for film technological breakthroughs is apparently still what leads us into the cinema these days… next to word-of-mouth, of course.  Fortunately for Avatar (2009), it has both – its opening weekend has easily smashed all existing box office records for a 3D film, and has its eyes on taking the top spot overall.  A strong opening weekend is perhaps to be expected, however, for a film that reputedly cost half a billion dollars to make and distribute.  Lumbering James Cameron behemoths like Terminator 2 (1991) or Titanic (1997) were also very profitable gambles in this respect – the former was effectively one long chase scene that demonstrated how the latest CGI could be mobilized to tap into white American male emotion, the latter a five-act tragedy that tapped into white American female emotion.  Cameron’s films are the kinds of films people see more than once:  they tug on enough emotional strings to produce occasional vertiginous feelings while keeping the visual effects rolling to catch your heart at the next turn in the plot.  His films are effective because they are affective, his plots predictable but oh-so “classic,” his high concepts putting even Steven Spielberg’s successes with Jaws (1975) and E.T. (1982) to shame.  Avatar is no exception.

So why didn’t this latest film, which was up my alley in terms of its sci-fi premise, colonial struggles and gratuitous deployment of mecha, bowl me over as it did countless cinema-goers?

Because I saw John Woo’s Red Cliff (2009) first.

******THE SPOILER BOUNDARY — YOU’VE BEEN WARNED ******

Chiling Lin in Red Cliff

“What?!” you exclaim. “But Avatar was so awesome!  All the special effects majors (save Pixar) put their heart and soul into it:  Digital Domain, Industrial Light and Magic, and Weta Digital.  It’s in 3D and looks gorgeous.  Sure, the plot is clichéd, but what plot isn’t?  It totally has a subversive message against colonialism and the exploitation of our Earth.  This is the future of filmaking.  You’re living in the past, man.”

Gentle reader, Avatar itself is definitively a construct of the past:  James Cameron actually wrote the treatment back in 1994, but shelved it until 2006 out of film-technological concerns.  This means that those who are making Dances of Wolves (1993), Pocahontas (1995) and *ahem* FernGully: The Last Rainforest (1992, see also 20th Century Fox, Avatar’s distributor) comparisons with the film hit the nail on the head:  Avatar has much more to do with those “going native” narratives than, say, the postcolonial violence depicted in District 9 (2009).  It lives and breathes the multiculturalism of the early 90s, rather than the stale air of globalization and colonial legacies of asymmetrical exploitation in places like South Africa, Israel/Palestine or Pakistan.  As an “adult fairytale,” it offers an almost suffocating sense of nostalgia for the days when we audiences were just starting to think about things like the environment and social inequalities of race/class/gender in terms of mainstream action.

Despite the principal emphasis of all reviewers on the film as an “effects achievement,” I find its major successes to be located in its subtext rather than its revolutionary 3D stereoscopic cameras, etc.  Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) as a believably stubborn handicapped marine.  Three strong women characters – Saldana’s Neytiri, Sigourney Weaver’s Grace and Michelle Rodriguez’ Trudy – give the viewers a variety of models of positive femininity.  Neytiri even manages to save our hero protagonist’s life twice at the end, though the other two women have to die in “exchange.”  The map the Colonel (Stephen Lang) puts on the wall of the gathering tribes reminded me of the animated map at the beginning of Fritz Hippler’s Nazi propaganda film Feldzug in Polen (1940), in which the gathering Nav’i armies seem like a bacteria or disease encroaching on the borders of “civilization.”  The implication that the neural network established throughout Pandora was in many ways more advanced than the artificial networks generated by man is a pleasant and original fantasy in our Internet era.

All of this subtlety (which I assume emerged because there were many intelligent people working on this project) proved fragile, however, against the blubber-filled weight of the film’s Hollywood exportable aesthetics and the Campbellian three-act screenplay.  Complex institutions such as colonizing empires are reduced to simplistic, one-dimensional characters: the greedy project organizer (Giovanni Ribisi — capitalism/corporations), the bloodthirsty colonel (military) and the aloof xenologist (science).  The viewers are delivered the biotopia with the exotic landscapes and species without being in the dubious position of conqueror/explorer (since Jake Sully feels bad and changes sides).  And most importantly, the resistance strategies offered by the film are reduced to A) global solidarity among the Nav’i tribes, B) heroic sacrifice by noble savages with their bows and arrows, C) the hero happens to be *sigh* the Chosen One and D) Pandora puts nature itself as a weapon at the heroes’ disposal.  Aptly put, we are given the feeling of resistance to imperialism without being given any of the methods, beyond the magic of Hollywood.

Why Red Cliff is Better

Red Cliff is a better film than Avatar because it is a bountiful wealth of said resistance methods (though – fear not! – John Woo loved Avatar).  Woo’s first directorial effort in China since Hard Boiled (1992) tells the famous Romance of the Three Kingdoms historical epic through the eyes of two of its master strategist heroes – Zhou Yu (Tony Leung Chiu Wai) and Zhuge Liang (Takeshi Kaneshiro) – as they lead a desperate battle against the invading armies of the fearless Cao Cao (Fengyi Zhang).  At a fifth of Avatar‘s reported price-tag ($80 million), the film was nevertheless the most expensive Asian film to date and not the least bit short (runtime 238 min., cut down to 148 min. for international release) to boot.  Budget spent in Avatar on obscenely high-tech effects was deployed toward armies of hundreds of extras and several expensive-looking fight sequences.  Nevertheless, Red Cliff‘s visuals in 2D look equally stunning as Avatar‘s in 3D.  This is to say – using Peter Wuss’ PKS model – the films stand toe-to-toe with each other in terms of perception-leading structures, which leave us with narrative-leading and stereotype-leading structures to differentiate the films (Don’t get me started on stereotypes in Avatar).  Whereas Avatar insists on narrative-leading structures that produce affect against the backdrop of unreflected war imagery (i.e., destruction of home-tree, the final air battle sequence, etc.), Red Cliff seeks narrative-leading structures that both engage the intellect and produce affect against war itself.

Yes, Red Cliff is an anti-war movie in a way that Avatar cannot possibly be.  Significant screen-time is spent discussing strategy for many decisive battles, and such discussions lead directly into intellectual engagement with the battle sequences:  how does one beat an overwhelming enemy?  What formations are to be used?  Why will atmospheric conditions shift the conflict one way and not another?  Like Howard Hawks before him, Woo concentrates his films on professionals who are forced into the greatest professional challenge of their lives.  Whereas Avatar persists with visually articulated moralizing discourses about native populations and environmental exploitation, Red Cliff takes discourse of oppressor/oppressed as a given and instead preoccupies itself with the material waging of war.  The anti-war message is imparted by Tony Leung’s beautifully tragic facial expressions as he watches his strategies work.  Rather than reducing all characters to multi-dimensional heroes and one-dimensional villains who are justified in killing each other over their respective moral principles, all of the violence crossing the screen in Red Cliff comes with a moral price tag.  Clashes of civilizations transform into precisely the relationship of symbiotic violence portrayed in the hunting rituals of the Nav’i (that is then abandoned in favor of the action movie/revenge motif).  Resistance is not mythical and leap-of-faith efforts, but intellectual work.

All of this ranting and raving is, of course, intended to get you to see Red Cliff, or at least think about it as you fork over $14 for your 3D ticket.  If you’re seeing Avatar for its fantastic visuals, then by all means go and enjoy the colors.  But if you’re looking for a solid story that offers a moral perspective on current events, China has beaten the USA/UK/New Zealand conglomerate at a fifth the price.


Lincoln’s Playlist for Your President’s Day Party

February 16, 2009

This was your biggest dilemma today, wasn’t it? That nagging question of what would be the ideal playlist for the huge President’s Day bash you’re having tonight? Well, never fear! Abraham Lincoln, via NPR’s Morning Edition, is ready to help you out!

If Abraham Lincoln Had An iPod

You can hear some of the suggested Lincoln favorites at the link above, but the basic things to keep in mind when crafting your 200-year-old presidential playlist are: opera, Scottish ballads, and “Dixie.”

I also thought it was interesting that a lot of the composers that we think of as “core” classical now were actually just getting their start in Lincoln’s day, having been born in and around the same year as Mr. Lincoln himself: Mendelssohn, Schumann, Chopin, Wagner, and many more. Quite the time to be alive.

-posted by Dana


Inauguration Day!

January 20, 2009

I have to admit, after such a long election cycle, I was a little “over” Barack Obama, and he hadn’t even been sworn in yet. For the past month, I had been going back and forth, back and forth, about attending the inauguration. I hadn’t been able to score tickets, but they were putting Jumbotrons out on the mall so people could go downtown and watch. I knew crowds would be so bad that the only way I’d get to the mall was to walk the three miles.

Normally not too bad, but the weather was for the mid 20s (which is unbelievably cold for the DC region) and I can’t handle the DC crowds on the 4th of July and this would be much, much worse. Plus, the predictions. 6 hours to wait for metro. Bring your own toilet paper and a sandwich. 4 million people sandwiched downtown. I couldn’t tell if this was the Inauguration or the zombie apocalypse. Barricading myself in the house and watching the whole thing on TV was sounding like a very attractive option.

Then, I remembered that my toes tend to freeze and lose feeling on a regular basis, like just hanging around the house. Spending all day outside in freezing temps? I’d need to find some new socks. And I’d need new mittens, as my gloves wouldn’t cut it.

But, when my grandchildren ask me where  I was that day, did I really want to answer that it was too cold and too much of a hassle, so I watched it on TV while still wearing my pajamas? Lame.

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Chinese Food: The Open Source McDonald’s

January 8, 2009

Jennifer 8 Lee gave a TED talk on the rampant spread of Chinese food throughout the US and the world, which is as entertaining as it is informative.

For those of you who have never heard of Jennifer 8 Lee, she’s the author of The Fortune Cookie Chronicles: Adventures in the World of Chinese Food. I first heard about the book from the NPR review of the book last year, but fellow Geek Buffeteer Jennie also reviewed it over at Biblio File. I have yet to read it, but I really, really want to.

Now I’m hungry…

-posted by Dana


History Needs More Dinosaurs

November 14, 2008

Via my fabulous friend Jeremy Tolbert, I received the following most awesome link:

Roadside Attraction: The Alternative History Theme Park Where Dinosaurs Fought in the Civil War

As the article says:

Most speculative fiction surrounding the American Civil War imagines how the world would be different had the Confederacy won its independence. But roadside attraction creator Mark Cline has imagined an entirely different kind of Civil War science fiction. His fiberglass creations tell the tale of a group of Union soldiers who discover a lost valley of dinosaurs in Virginia and plot to use them as weapons against the South.

You absolutely must click over there to see all the fantastic photos of the recreated dino vs. soldier battles. As you may notice in the first photo, things don’t appear to have gone exactly as the Yankees had planned. Given that I live in North Carolina and the museum is in Virginia, I’m definitely starting to feel the need to take a road trip.

What other ideas can you think of for alternative history theme parks you’d like to see?

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The Sheik & Social Mores part 2

November 13, 2008

Initially, I had envisioned part 2 (part 1 here) as comparing and contrasting the continuum from reel–>read–> real. In the future I’d like to steer back in that direction with some other silent film, perhaps The Lost World or Phantom of the Opera. In the meantime I’ve gone off on a bit of a literary bender related to the Near East, chewing thorough numerous online references, Persian Pictures (1892) by Gertrude Bell, and Winter in Arabia (1937-38) by Freya Stark. I wasn’t that impressed with Pictures, but Winter in Arabia is an excellent companion piece to Nicholas Clapp’s Sheba.

A lot of people have gotten mileage off the Sheik-Valentino mythos, particularly on sociological topics including race, class, gender roles and the taming of otherness. These have been covered in professional literature, which I’ll leave to you to look up. Despite my earlier dismissal of Lady Chatterley’s Lover, there’s actually a lot more alike than dissimilar between the two novels, but LC is consistently included on the ‘banned books’ list while The Sheik is remembered as an early popular romance. Why the contrast in notoriety?

The authors (E.M. Hull and D.H. Lawrence) were contemporaries, both with a Derbyshire connection, but from different social classes. Each novel deals with an intimate relationship that was disturbing to the prevailing mind set (LC class reasons, S racial/colonial issues), involving blunt, passion-driven men and women described as remote or cool to emotion. Both also deal with sex as something that happens, this touch of directness in Hull’s writing I wasn’t expecting, given the dense layering of purple prose in places, but Lawrence is even more direct, which is probably the reason LC is stuck on the banned books list. That and the conflict in LC was resolved by a pregnant Constance Chatterley running away to British Columbia—leaving behind a crippled aristocratic husband and a large estate—to marry a lumberjack. The solution to Diane’s problems were a bit more deus ex machina (He’s a Spaniard! Aristocratic even! Raised by wild desert tribesmen the way talking apes raised Tarzan Viscount Greystoke!) I was actually looking for this b/c the movie was my first introduction to the idea of anti-miscegenation laws and the Hayes code.

The two novels definitely don’t match up in the development of the female protagonists. Constance grows into herself, while Diane suffers a psychological break and decides she’s perfectly happy being carted all over the back of beyond by a guy whose idea of foreplay is making her cry. *Bleh* The Ahmed-Diane relationship in book has hallmarks of Stockholm syndrome, and he’s totally open about the fact he grabbed her off the street because he hates the English, and she was conveniently English, blue-blooded and vulnerable in one hot package. Freud must have had a field day with the horse breaking scene if he read a German translation. It’s interesting that the male author (Lawrence) writes about a woman finding more of herself and the female author (Hull) goes the subjugation route. Have to wonder what the rationale for each of them was since they were both seeing the same changes in society, broadly speaking.

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