There’s No Such Thing as a Universal Trump Card

I’ve gone back and forth about writing something here about Donald Trump for months. It’s off topic. I don’t have anything to say that hasn’t been said elsewhere. I don’t hear a broad audience clamoring for my opinion.

Still, I think I should be on the record:

Donald Trump has exposed himself as completely unfit for any government position beyond mail carrier more times than I can count.

Hillary Clinton is enormously qualified, competent, and absolutely the better choice for President.

I don’t know why the tide has turned after his comments with Billy Bush. On the one hand, BARF, on the other, how is this any worse than anything else he’s said?

I follow politics mainly because I think it’s important, not because it’s interesting. Anything that claims to be a debate is dreadfully dull. When the participants aren’t talking over each other, their talking points are obvious and not insightful.

But nobody actually wants to debate ideas. They want to win. They want to destroy, crush, decimate and pwn the other side. They want to slap their opponent with a zinger so witty, so irrefutable, it leaves them speechless.

This never happens. Facts don’t matter, I’m told. We each have our own, fresh from our personal echo chamber. I can cite studies and figures to show you why you’re wrong, but you’ll retort with your own statistics that prove me wrong. (Supposedly.)

Albert Einstein tells us that there is no universal reference frame. There is no completely

Credit: @IamHappyToast

Your Republican nominee for President, folks. Credit: @IamHappyToast

objective position where you can look down on everything else. As you accelerate relative to me, mass increases, length contracts, and time slows down.

We can disagree about things that should be fundamental to our understanding of the Universe- and yet we’re both right.[1][2]

I’d like to see everybody have more productive conversations about political issues. Instead of trying to prove each other wrong, we should figure out where we’re both right. We’ll never get anywhere if we’re just arguing about what time it is.

This means everybody needs to swallow their pride. That’s especially tough when Donald Trump lies through his teeth and makes proposals that play fast and loose with the Constitution. I understand the urge to criticize and call him names, but is that going to change anyone’s mind?

Then again, I also believe it is important to call Trump’s statements what they are: Racism. Bigotry. Prejudice. Sexism.


I think many of the people who support Donald Trump have legitimate grievances that should be addressed. The economic shifts in the manufacturing sectors of the midwest and mining industry in places like West Virginia have made life miserable for many people. This is a starting point. This is something we can agree on.

I’d see this as another example of systemic income inequality, rather than blaming free trade or immigrants, but that’s a question for a debate.

One of the biggest problems with the Trump campaign is the way he traffics in conspiracy theories- birtherism, Benghazi, etc. By design, they are unfalsifiable. And what’s worse, there’s usually a kernel of truth buried down there somewhere. It’s not hard to string together a group of actual, verifiable facts and claim they prove something when they don’t.

The Republican Party will have a lot to answer for when this is all over.[3] Why were so many scandals able to be brushed off when the Trump Tapes weren’t? To those who have denounced him, thanks. Better late than never.

If you’d like to talk about politics with me, I’d be happy to. But first, you’ll have to answer this question: What is the speed of light in a vacuum?

  1. [1] But if you don’t think man made climate change is a problem, you’re wronger than the wrongest mistake that was ever incorrect.
  2. [2] Among other things.
  3. [3] And it’s not over until Donald gives a concession speech.
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Regular Coverage Will Resume Momentarily

So it turns out the post that was going to go up this week needs more work. I always find a counterexample the night before. In its place, I leave you with two videos from the ever reliable CGP Grey, which I hope will put your mind at ease during this election season.

The first expands upon the Idea-as-Germ Theory that made the Cold War so worrisome.

The second might make you uncomfortable at first, but it’s worth sticking with it.cgpgreysymbol

Please remember, in all the hubbub and conspiracy theories and baseless accusations flying around in our segmented media landscape, that the thought germs that make you angry are not always the most accurate. And by believing in things that aren’t true, we can give them the power to harm us they otherwise wouldn’t have.

But I don’t want to create a false equivalency. There’s a lot of information out there, about a particular candidate, which is probably true, and will make you angry, and rightly so.

Don’t boo. Vote, people.

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They Don’t Make Them Like This Anymore

It used to be a network TV miniseries was a big deal. All the production value of a season-long show compressed into a few super-sized episodes. Kind of like what we have on cable now.

Back in the early 1980s, ABC had the clout to attract big name actors like Peter O’Toole, Peter Strauss, and David Warner[1], as well as film composer Jerry Goldsmith[2] to a four episode, six-hour series called Masada. In the mode of sword and sandal epics, it employs a cast of hundreds, plus animals, expansive sets, and gigantic Roman siege engines.

The story resembles the Alamo in ancient Palestine. In the early years of the Common Era (CE), Judea[3] was a province of the Roman Empire. From 66-73 CE, the Jews revolted against Roman rule. It didn’t go well- Jerusalem was sacked, the Second Temple was destroyed, and the Empire’s control remained.[4]

Masada picks up at the end of the Revolt. The region has been pacified, and the Tenth Legion, commanded by Lucius Flavius Silva (Peter O’Toole) is finally preparing to go home. But a band of Jewish hold-outs tries to keep the fight going. They’re led by Eleazar ben Ya’ir (Peter Strauss), a Zealot, who wants independence from Rome. Silva’s one last mission is to lay siege to their stronghold, a fortress on top of a cliff called Masada.

There’s a lot to recommend here. O’Toole is great- he says more with a tilt of his heads than most actors say with a long soliloquy. Scenes where Silva and Eleazar can play off masada_aka_the_antagonists_tv-524582936-large_4547each other are also nice- neither one is a villain, but their attempts to resolve things peacefully are doomed to failure.

Anthony Quayle is Rubrius Gallus, a Roman engineer tasked with getting Roman troops up the side of the cliff. Incidentally, it’s not the first time he and O’Toole have had an adventure together in the desert.[5]

The music is incredible. The easiest excerpt to find is a rousing march that’s been re-recorded several times. Personally, I think Goldsmith won his Emmy in the first ten minutes of Part II, during the title sequence, as the Romans march to the fortress: The plucky, melodic theme for the Jews is contrasted by the brassy, percussive fanfare of the Romans. It was also cool to hear the Roman’s theme repeated in the fanfares played by characters within the story.[6]

And yet.

There are the usual issues of dramatizing a historical event. This one, in particular, has very few sources to draw from, so there are gaps that need to be filled in. A history lesson this is not.

The pacing is slow, especially by today’s standards. The siege itself doesn’t get started until the second episode. It’s six hours long, for crying out loud. David Warner’s treacherous Pomponious Falco is played as a thinly-veiled villainous homosexual– he promoted his masseuse to be his secretary and later catapults Jewish slaves into the cliff face. He might as well have a limp wrist and listen to show tunes. I doubt this would fly today.

Silva is by far the most interesting character in the whole bit. He even has an affair with a Jewish woman, Sheva (Barbara Carrera), who has fled lecherous legionnaires. Driven by his devotion to Rome, he is forced to choose the least bad option for the good of the Empire. Naturally, we spend the most time with him.

But this means Eleazar and his fellow Jews don’t have much to do[7] until the end of the story.

And that ending is really frakking uncomfortable: rather than be captured or killed by the Romans when they storm the gate, they commit mass suicide instead.

There are a lot of problems with this- but they’ll have to wait until next week.


  1. [1] who won an Emmy
  2. [2] also won an Emmy for Episode II
  3. [3] Previously subsumed by the Babylonians, the Assyrians, and the Persians, among others
  4. [4] The end of The Last Temptation of Christ, when Jesus begs to be put back on the cross (sorry, spoilers), crawling among chaos and burning buildings, takes place here.
  5. [5] That would be Lawrence of Arabia.
  6. [6] We’d call this source music, or diegetic music.
  7. [7] Especially in Part III.
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Theme and Variations

Last week, Tony Zhou from Every Frame a Painting released another fantastic video about the music in the Marvel Cinematic Universe[1] I don’t have much to add, but to summarize why Marvel movies don’t have particularly memorable music:

  • The fashionable idea among directors and producers is that music should not draw attention to itself.
  • Filmmakers working on large, expensive blockbusters are risk averse, and so use music that fits a formula they know will work.
  • The use of temp scores encourages composers to create music that sounds like other anonymous music.

To follow up on the temp score issue, EFaP also released a second video comparing final scores and their (alleged) temp track equivalents.

Dan Golding also put out a response video, focusing on the work of one composer in particular: Hans Zimmer. His use of electronics and synthesizers was innovative, but also provided a way to create music that was considerably cheaper than hiring an orchestra of expensive musicians.

If you talk to actual film score enthusiasts, they’ll tell you that this is nothing new. Or that the real problem is replacing the composer on each sequel hinders any kind of thematic consistency. One thing that really helped the Star Wars and Harry Potter franchises Tony references at the start is the fact the composer John Williams’ themes are present for most if not all of the films.

What’s a theme, you ask? The idea goes back to Richard Wagner’s operas, where a musical melody or phrase would be associated with a character or idea. When Siegfried appears on stage, you’ll hear his theme, or lietmotif. When Wotan and Brunhilde are talking about Siegfried, you’ll hear it too.

The last movie franchise I can think of that really cut against the grain for all this was the original Lord of the Rings, composed by Howard Shore. There are literally dozens of themes introduced throughout the three films, representing everything from The Shire, the Fellowship, to the Ring itself.

As someone who loves music, and film scores in particular, I think a film’s music often gets glossed over in favor of gushing over the director or cast. But this is a nice change.

The anonymity in the music is something I didn’t fully appreciate until I was thinking about EFaP’s video afterward. In LotR, there are many, many moments where the score swells to the front of the sound mix, and the composer gets to speak instead of the actors.

One thing that hit me when I saw Lawrence of Arabia on film in a theater several years ago was just how much the music filled the room.[2]

But I don’t think cannibalizing the same sources is just a problem for film scores. This isn’t unique to film scores- I think movies in general too often pull inspiration only from other films. And it’s not just sequels and reboots, either.

More on that another time.


  1. [1] Can we find a less cumbersome name for this thing?
  2. [2] If we’re brushing up on Wagner, I’ll also point out that he didn’t like to call his work “operas.” He preferred the term Gesamtkunstwerk (Gesundheit), or a “total work of art.” Something that synthesized all art forms into a massive creative achievement- narrative, theater, music, painting, costuming, etc. I know I’m biased, but I think movies also fit the bill.
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Pay No Attention To That Robot Above The Protest

I noticed this article when it was published on Deadline two weeks ago, but I haven’t heard much else since.

The Federal Aviation Administration gave special permits to three companies to use unmanned aerial vehicles/systems- whatever they want to be called these days- for commercial purposes. Normally, you’d need a permit for that.

One is an agriculture company that wants to use a drone with a camera to check on crop fields. Another is a railroad that wants to inspect track infrastructure.

The third is CNN. They want to fly drones with cameras on them over people.

I have been accused of being a Luddite in the past, so I don’t want to poo-poo this too quickly. It’s just one news company- for now- and I would hope there are some restrictions on when and how they can be used.

If not, we’ll need some new laws to say what’s okay. A drone is much smaller and cheaper than a helicopter- instead of hovering over a traffic accident, it could swoop down for a better view. Who gets to decide how low is too low? The police? What about when it’s not just CNN, but FOX, NBC, CBS, ABC, and The Huffington Post all vying for airspace?

The model they’re planning to use is called a Fotokite Pro– it weighs less than two pounds and has a tether that connects it to the operator. I imagine the tether will be one of the first things to go, especially once more news organizations use them.

fotokite-pro-arial-filming-drone-desc1I suspect the things CNN wants to cover would be large gatherings of people: protests, political rallies, New Year’s Eve. But there are other applications as well. Those 7 On Your Side stories will be a lot different if it’s not just a dogged reporter chasing a small time scam artist down the street, but a drone as well.

Heck, the reporter won’t even need to break a sweat. Just put a speaker on board with the camera:

“Do you have a comment, sir? Please speak clearly and be careful of the propellers!”

And this is one of the diciest bits about using these things: it’s much harder to get away from them if you don’t want to be on camera. Yes, it may be in public, but do we want TMZ following Kim Kardashian’s convertible down the 101? What if it was you in your car? And what happens when the public, perhaps feeling drunk or riotous, tries to damage the drone by grabbing or throwing things at it?

As we become comfortable with news organizations flying drones overhead, other groups will want in as well. Some of them are already starting to use them: police departments in particular are interested in their surveillance capabilities.

Perhaps at large public gatherings, like protests or political rallies. Just keeping an eye on who’s there.

Will we be able to tell who’s who? Which drone is with the news, which is with the cops, and which is just a hobbyist? Will these mini helicopters have to have unique paint jobs?

Is this what we want? I suspect not. But we’ll have to specify the rules about where drones can fly, who can use them, and when.

The drones will only become faster and cheaper. The cameras will only get lighter and have better resolution. We can’t just think about what’s available now, but what the newer models will have years from now.

I do think this is an exciting opportunity, and I hope my inner Luddite’s fears are unfounded. But if you’re at all concerned, please write to your Congresspeople, and especially state and local legislators, who will be the ones to figure out what the rules are for these things.

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Learning All The Wrong Lessons

(Editors Note: Spoilers for Theeb, a movie you should really see.)

If you see Netflix gently suggesting strongly urging you to watch Theeb, do yourself a favor and check it out. If you’re worried about subtitles (it’s in Arabic), don’t- it’s not very talky.

In 1916, during the Great Arab Revolt against the Ottoman Empire[1], Theeb, a young Bedouin boy lives with his brother at a small camp in the desert. A British officer arrives in the night, on an urgent mission. When his brother is asked to help, Theeb doesn’t want to be left behind.

The film gets a lot of mileage out of restricting our point of view to Theeb. He’s on the edge of grown-up conversations, and while we can fill in the gaps, he can’t. There’s a brief conversation with the officer and his original guide- he stresses the need to complete his mission and defeat the Turks (it’s for the good of the Arabs, of course), but his guide needs him to be more diplomatic (Theeb and his brother are the sons of an important tribal elder.)

Unable to speak English, Theeb is oblivious to the conversation, but it drives home an important point: the international intrigue that seems essential to an imperial power like Great Britain means nothing to people like the Bedouin, who are more concerned with  day-to-day life.

This idea is also prevalent in Lawrence of Arabia, one of my all time favorite films. (See image above.) The connection between the two is not just because they take place at the same time and in the same place, but both were shot in Wadi Rum, in the south of Jordan. Theeb_Film_PosterThe filmmakers had to be careful to avoid some of the more well-known landmarks.[2]

I’ve heard a couple of people describe Theeb as a Bedouin-western. In addition to the sandy landscapes dotted by massive rock formations, there’s talk of the railroad completely changing people’s way of life in the area- and not always for the better.

Theeb also has all the hallmarks of an adventure film: venturing beyond the comforts of home to have an exciting but dangerous experience. It’s great to see this handled from the perspective of a Bedouin boy: in Lawrence of Arabia, we see all the Bedouin characters through the eyes of a white man. Even when he’s sympathetic to them, they can’t speak for themselves. Theeb and most of the characters in the film are all played by non-professional actors, which gives their performances extra authenticity.

Adventure-western films starring young boys also lend themselves to coming of age stories, and Theeb is no different. Except…

(Spoilers start here.)

I don’t know how I feel about the ending.

While taking the British officer to his rendezvous with the Revolutionaries, Theeb and his companions are ambushed by bandits at a well. The boy is the only survivor. He waits for help at the well, and who should show up but one of the bandits, Hassan, wounded and abandoned by his comrades.

Theeb and Hassan nurse each other back to help and start making their way back to civilization. Hassan has collected trinkets and valuables from the bodies (including the officer’s mysterious wooden box), and takes them to a Turkish outpost to sell them. He’s the one who explains to Theeb how the railroad is destroying the Bedouin way of life.

But when Theeb realizes he’s selling the officer’s belongings to the Turks, he steals a gun and shoots Hassan.

Narratively, this seems like a let down: Theeb wanted to kill Hassan before, but decided not to, and then did, anyway.

It also seems like a betrayal of the work done at the beginning to show how the British sense of Arab nationalism means little to the Bedouin. Since when was Theeb overcome with patriotic fervor? When the railroad divided up the desert? Is that it?

But I wonder what kind of young man Theeb will grow up to be. Over the opening credits, we hear his father relating a parable about trusting people: You can’t be too careful. When a wolf acts like your friend, he’ll still betray you.[3] Theeb and Hassan both hesitate to trust each other, yet when they do, they both benefit.

Except Theeb still can’t get past his distrust of Hassan. And especially after the Turks let him go, he’ll be less inclined to trust other strangers.

Coming of age films often stress the advantages that come from trusting people: we’re stronger when we work together, etc., etc. Except Theeb seems to take away the opposite lesson. People are not to be trusted, especially mysterious strangers.

It’s a coming of age film where the hero learns entirely the wrong lesson.

  1. [1] See Lawrence of Arabia for details.
  2. [2] Wadi Rum was also the location for the Mars scenes in The Martian. Seems like it’s an Arabian Monument Valley.
  3. [3] Also, Theeb’s name means “wolf.”
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Preaching to the Choir 2: The Preachening

Last weekendBen-Hur attempted to convert the masses with two different ad campaigns: a rock-em sock-em action movie for secular audiences, and an inspirational, heartfelt drama for religious folks. It worked like a charm.

The numbers I see have Ben-Hur making $19.5 million in the US, a little over $40 million when you include the rest of the world. This is less than half of a $100 million production budget.

I’ll leave the question of how big a flop Ben-Hur has been to Hollywood accountants[1] But it’s got me thinking:

What do you do if a part of your movie might not agree with your target audience? What if it’s something they really need to hear? If you can just get them in the theater, you can have your say and make your point, but how do you get there?

(This is where I’ll put the usual caveats about taste and not pleasing everyone all the time.)

Last year, when the trailers for Mad Max: Fury Road were released, it too, looked like a slick action movie. Brooding male hero, damsels in distress, heartless villain, cool cars. poster_3_fury_road_mad_max_by_cesaria_yohann-d8rd450Should do well among young men.[2]

When it was released, the reviews were very good. In particular they noted the depiction of female lead Charlize Theron’s character, Furiosa, who is just as bad ass as Tom Hardy’s Mad Max, if not more so.

Naturally, there was a minor kerfuffle on the Internet (one angry blogger called for a boycott and got some press coverage.) Ire was directed at the trailers that masked the “feminist propaganda” in the full movie.

False advertising really strikes a nerve in people- How dare you take my hard earned money with a lie! But is there another way to get people who need to hear your gospel to buy tickets?

I don’t know.

I suspect the people who get angry enough to call for a boycott would never be convinced by your movie anyway. People change, sure, but it’s not like in the movies. It takes a whole lot longer than 90 minutes.

People are nothing if not tribal. We want movies to speak to us, not them. They’re for the fans. If we get a whiff that you’re trying to include someone else, we’ll be royally pissed. We don’t want to hear any message that isn’t for us.

And like any tribe of humans, we have our rituals. They must be performed correctly and completely. If not, the balance of the cosmos will be out of whack.

I mean, it’s not like us vs them tribalistic thinking has every gotten people into trouble. If only there were a way to break through that deeply ingrained facet of human nature.


  1. [1] It’ll probably end up making some money- or losing only a little bit, whatever makes the taxes come out right.
  2. [2] I still find it hilarious that, as expected, Mad Max made less money than Pitch Perfect 2. There was a point where people thought women don’t go to movies.
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Preaching to The Choir

Ben-Hur is having a terrible time at movie theaters.

Anthony D’Alessandro at has an interesting write-up about how and why it might have happened. I was particularly intrigued by a trailer that was cut specifically to appeal to Christian audiences.

See, the only advertising I’d seen made the movie look like a two-hour chariot race. I’ve never seen the 1959 version most people would be familiar with, but I could’ve sworn there was a religious theme in there.[1]

I assumed that the studio, thinking that people didn’t want a sermon with their summer blockbuster violence, had scrubbed the religious elements entirely. They had already had a sibling rivalry, a quest for revenge, Morgan Freeman, and that damned chariot race- what more did they need?

The trailer for Christian audiences definitely plays up the religious side: Jesus is presented as if he’s a major character. This Ben-Hur looks like a completely different movie.

It’s not unusual to tailor different marketing strategies for different potential audiences- but this is extreme. D’Alessandro describes a studio that wants to have its cake and eat it too: religious audiences come for the uplifting themes, the secular heathens get their dose of PG-13 violence.

Ben-Hur_2016_posterI won’t speculate why all of this failed. But it doesn’t bode well for other movies with religious themes. A couple years ago, Noah didn’t do well either, and was criticized for its treatment of the source material.

This is a shame. I’m not religious myself, but I find what and why people believe fascinating. Few movies examine these things closely, though. Biblical epics like the elder Ben-Hur[2] and The Ten Commandments imbue well-known stories with lavish spectacle.

In the 1980s, more interesting films like Monty Python’s Life of Brian and The Last Temptation of Christ were extremely controversial when they were released. Protests and boycotts were widespread, and the moral fabric of society was wrenched apart by irreverent revisionism. The comic book nerds of today have nothing on the throngs of the faithful.

Today, most movies don’t touch on religion explicitly. The only ones that do are smaller, independent releases, like Saved!, which ridicules religious hypocrisy, and corn syrupy offerings like Fireproof. Each has their own small crowd that will see and enjoy them, and never the twain shall meet.

Even when Christians and non-Christians[3] see the same movie, namely the documentary Jesus Camp, they’ll see exactly what they want to. One side sees a fair depiction of their belief system, the other sees small children being brainwashed by a demented ideology.

Religion is a deeply personal part of people’s lives, and I can understand how seeing one’s beliefs depicted on screen can make people uncomfortable. Usually in these films, anyone who doesn’t agree with the filmmakers’ perspective is shown as an idiot, or worse. As if whatever you believe in should be blindingly obvious to everyone else.

These movies won’t change anyone’s minds, they’ll just reinforce beliefs people already have. Personally, I don’t mind seeing things from a perspective I think I’ll disagree with. It’s good to challenge one’s fundamental beliefs once in a while. If they don’t hold up, they aren’t very good fundamental beliefs.

How to get people who will disagree with your message to see your movie? I don’t know for sure, but I have ideas…

  1. [1] The title of the original novel is Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ.
  2. [2] Still not the first one produced- there two earlier silent versions, from 1907 and 1925.
  3. [3] Even this is over simplified- not every religious person, or every Christian is an evangelical Protestant.
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Insert Title Here

The title of a movie or a book is usually the first thing an audience encounters, but for me at least, it’s one of the last things I come up with. I’ll have a placeholder that I can refer to it as for my own needs, but it won’t always work as the Official Title to give to audiences.

Titles have to do a lot of legwork, so it’s not surprising that they’re hard to do. You want something that describes what the story’s about, but it has to be memorable. And short. The Assassination of Jesse James by The Coward Robert Ford meets all of those requirements… except the last one.

I like unusual titles that don’t sound like they could refer to a bunch of other things. My least favorite, which I always strive to avoid, follows a pattern:

The Noun.

This is followed closely by my second least favorite kind of title:

The Adjective Noun.

Even some of the work I’ve posted on the Media page have what I’d consider to be working titles. Afghanestern is just a weird word to someone who’s never heard it before, but I can’t think of a better one that also describes what the story is.

I was amused to see that the title of the Tom Cruise vehicle Edge of Tomorrow might as well have been changed on the DVD cover. The original title could refer to any number of science fiction scenarios, but was downplayed for home media under the tagline Live. Die. Repeat., which fits the story about soldiers re-living an alien invasion over and over again much better.[1]

While we’re on the subject of nonsensical titles, I’ll mention Blade Runner, which is a cool phrase, a great movie, but makes no sense given the story. There’s an off-hand reference that people who hunt down rebellious Replicants were called “Blade Runners,” but why?

Why, of course, is that the title was changed from the story that inspired the movie, which was called Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? That wouldn’t do, supposedly because the voodoo of market research tells us movie titles can’t end in a question mark. This rule has saved us from such titles as Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?, Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, and Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back?

Beyond titles, I probably spend just as much, if not more, time mulling over character names, which are just titles for people. When looking for ideas, the website is really useful, even giving a blurb about where a name comes from.

I used to try really hard to give all of my characters Meaningful Names, but that runs the risk of using things like Richardine or Ethelbert. Nowadays, I care more about how a name sounds, especially for a movie. You won’t see it written down, so unusual spellings are pointless. Plus, doesn’t it seem natural that a Charles Foster Kane would be a megalomaniacal tycoon, or Selina Kyle would be a slinky cat burglar?

Say the names out loud. Feel how they move your mouth. How they taste. See what I mean?

Except we’re biased because we know these characters, and their names already have meanings for us. In reality, names like Kane’s would be aspirational at best. When a baby receives its name, no one knows what its personality or accomplishments will be. A person blessed with the name Charles Foster Kane is just as likely to be a wealthy businessman as a high school custodian.

  1. [1] It’s apparently based on a Japanese novel called All You Need Is Kill, which I find cryptic and intriguing. Good title.
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Eat Your Heart Out, Dick Van Dyke

Several years ago I was on the train into New York City when I overheard some people talking about tracking down a print of an old Buster Keaton movie.

Naturally, I had to turn around and introduce myself.

It turned out they were from a group called the Garden State Theatre Organ Society– dedicated to restoring and preserving what else, but theater organs.

You’re probably familiar with a pipe organ, housed in large churches and cathedrals, and used by Johann Sebastian Bach and others to scare the devil out of the parishioners. Several keyboards, hundreds of pipes, one harried musician in charge of all the literal bells and whistles.

The basic principle is simple: press a key, open a valve and force air into a long metal tube. The air vibrates a reed, which creates the sound. One note for each tube (that’s one reason why you need so many.) Shorter tubes- pipes- play high notes, longer pipes play low notes.

Theatre organs look a lot like church organs, except they would have been built in early movie theaters. Silent movies weren’t actually silent- there was always music meant to accompany them. Before high quality sound recording was available- and before cameras and projectors could run at a consistent rate to stay in sync- that meant the music needed to be performed live.

Orchestras are expensive- dozens of people, who all want creature comforts like chairs, which will just take up room in your theater that would be better used for paying customers. Why hire fifty people when one person can do the job?

That’s what a theater organist was- a single performer replicating the sound of a full orchestra. An organ doesn’t just have one set of pipes covering its range- it has several, controlled by knobs around the keyboards called stops.

One stop might have reeds that produce a smoother, more lush sound, like a string section. Another stop would have a brighter, metallic sound- the brass. If you pull out all the stops, well, now you’re really cooking.

In effect, one person could replace all the parts of the orchestra, but the set up required for this can get quite elaborate. One of the members of the GSTOS invited me to a meeting and showed me the organ she and her husband had built in their house.

It was all controlled from their living room, where a massive sound came up through the floorboards. The pipes were all in the basement. There was even a stop that controlled percussion instruments- a snare drum, cymbals, a marimba.

To create a vibrato effect, the pipes fed into wooden shoeboxes with a slat inside that briefly interrupted the airflow. The larger pipes had canvas bags, held in place by wooden frames bolted to the floor. They breathed like a steampunk hospital machine, keeping this massive metal beast alive.


The modern equivalent of this instrument can be seen in this video: a young girl performing every part of an orchestral piece of music, but instead of pipes we have synthesizers and digital samples. Note the keyboard for her feet, playing pedal tones, and another pedal controlling volume.

A computerized click track switches the stops for her- she has to play every note exactly as written.

This obviously takes a huge amount of practice and skill. I’ve played piano off and on for many years, and there’s no way I could do this. And yet-

I confess I’m not the biggest fan of the pipe organ. It can add some color to an ensemble, but to me the sound is flat and mechanical. Can an organ or a synthesizer sound like a full symphony orchestra? Yes, but it’s only a facsimile of the real thing.

I’m sure this speaks volumes to my own ignorance. To really appreciate an instrument like this, I want to know what it can do on its own, not as a replacement for something else.

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