Wednesday, 06 October 2010

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“WE UNDERSTAND, the yogurt said. WE HOPE YOU HAVE STOCKED UP ON CANNED GOODS.” Though I tend to disagree with his criticism of other science fiction authors, I do love it when Scalzi embraces his titular WHATEVER and goes off on an anti-objectivist rant: It’s no exaggeration when I say that Atlas Shrugged probably saved my sanity on that bus trip. So well done, Ms. Rand, and thanks. That said, it’s a totally ridiculous book which can be summed up as Sociopathic idealized nerds collapse society because they don’t get enough hugs. (This is, incidentally, where you can start your popcorn munching.) Indeed, the enduring popularity of Atlas Shrugged lies in the fact that it is nerd revenge porn — if you’re an nerd of an engineering-ish stripe who remembers all too well being slammed into your locker by a bunch of football dickheads, then the idea that people like you could make all those dickheads suffer by “going Galt” has a direct line to the pleasure centers of your brain. I’ll show you! the nerds imagine themselves crying. I’ll show you all! And then they disappear into a crevasse that Google Maps will not show because the Google people are our kind of people, and a year later they come out and everyone who was ever mean to them will have starved. Then these nerds can begin again, presumably with the help of robots, because any child in the post-Atlas Shrugged world who can’t figure out how to run a smelter within ten minutes of being pushed through the birth canal will be left out for the coyotes. Which if nothing else solves the problem of day care. All of this is fine, if one recognizes that the idealized world Ayn Rand has created to facilitate her wishful theorizing has no more logical connection to our real one than a world in which an author has imagined humanity ruled by intelligent cups of yogurt. But the reason the man earns my respect is that he puts his money where his mouth-of-a-novelist-of-ideas is and writes the damn thing: The yogurt was crafty and shrewd. It negotiated for itself a factory filled with curdling vats that increased its processing powers exponentially. Within weeks the yogurt had declared that it had arrived at solutions to many of the country’s problems: Energy. Global warming. Caring adequately for the nation’s poor while still promoting the capitalist system. It let us know just enough to let us know just how much more it knew. Share your answers with us, the government said. WE NEED PAYMENT, the yogurt said. What would you like? The government asked. OHIO, the yogurt said. (Tip o’ the hat to .todd.)
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Lesson Planning: Teaching basic film theory through Hayao Miyazaki's Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind Same as I did with Batman Begins and The Dark Knight (and continue to do to Mad Men) only this time about Hayao Miyazaki's Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind. The standard caveat applies. The formal elements of the opening five minutes of Nausicaä conspire to disorient the audience. For example, the film opens with a medium close-up, i.e. one that captures the upper torso of a character in a manner that allows the audience to clearly read a character's face without making it seem, as close-ups often do, as if the camera (and with it, the audience) are violating that character's personal space. In short, a medium close-up is designed to create a sense of comfortable intimacy between character and audience, e.g. That's obviously a terrible example, because Miyazaki's deliberately flouting film convention in order to make Lord Yupa seem inscrutable. The audience is disoriented because its members know how medium close-ups are conventionally employed (even though they might not know they do) and the violation of those conventions creates a little anxiety. If Yupa were to remove that mask, the audience would experience a slight sense of relief because the shot now conforms to their expectations. But if a director continues to confound them, the cumulative effect will create an uncomfortable audience, which is what Miyazaki wants: First: in conventional terms, this shot sequence is backwards. Establishing shots like the one above are intended to introduce the principle elements of a location and their spatial relation to each other. They are typically framed as extreme long shots in deep focus (as it makes little sense to introduce an audience to a collection of unfocused blobs), and they typically appear before medium close-ups of the characters contained within it. Reversing the typical shot sequence, as Miyazaki does here, results in the audience being surprised by the surroundings. This formal trick works even when those surroundings are less alien than they are here. For example, imagine a medium close-up of a couple of men standing around outside: Because the naturalistic lighting flatters their faces in the customary manner and the costume is conventional, the audience is taken aback when the director cuts to an establishing shot and sees this: The Syfy show Caprica, from which these frames were taken, relies on the disconnect created by this reversal to discomfit an audience who already knows who (aliens) and where (another planet in the distant past) these folks are. That the technique remains effective despite this knowledge demonstrates just how deeply intuitive audience understanding of filmic convention becomes over time. In sum: the formal elements of the film (the off-putting shot sequence) works in tandem with its content to produce a narrative moment that is more disturbing than it would be if either of these elements were doing all of the heavy lifting. In rhetorical terms, that means an argument about Miyazaki wanting to unsettle his audience is more convincing because there are multiple bits of evidence (form and content) supporting...

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