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22nd-Feb-2012 06:31 pm - Seven Guns for Freedom

The 1917 Seven Guns for Freedom has been called "the Southwest's Birth of a Nation" both for its innovative techniques and its overtly racist content. When a Mexican village is ransacked by revolutionaries, the cowardly villagers are visited by a group of American gunslingers whose own homes were attacked by those same revolutionaries. They propose to ambush the banditos, a plan which the villagers initially accept. One of the less reliable ones betrays the gunslingers, who are forced to retreat, but the seven men return to drive them off, killing the leader. Contemporary viewers remember the stirring final line that "The farmers cannot win. It takes a true soldier to win."

The political message is unmistakable. The film unashamedly supports Pershing's expedition and American intervention in the Mexican revolution, and the head of the band of revolutionaries strongly resembles Pancho Villa, still active at the time. There are also no positive Mexican characters in the film. They are bloodthirsty thieves, cowardly betrayers, or at best docile servants of the Americans, welcoming their guidance and asking them to stay and govern the village. Every director to tackle the story since then has done a vastly better job of depicting the peasants and even the bandits with greater humanity.

Technically, the film makes use of many of Birth of a Nation's innovations and adds horseback point-of-view shots, very good depiction of weather (Kurosawa expanded the thunderstorm accompanying the final battle to depict the bandits as a force of nature), and the exciting use of rapid cuts between different views of the same scene. Those cuts may, however, have been too rapid for the time. Though the action scenes carry on at a leisurely pace for a modern viewer, some critics at the time found it bewildering. Consequently, the film did only moderate business, and the producer, Pecos Pictures, went on to make only three more films (all fairly standard Westerns) before folding in 1918.

22nd-Feb-2012 04:42 pm - Terminale
(See here for the rather amusing idea)

1955's confusing Terminale is not regarded as one of the Nouvelle Vague's high points. Ti and Ki, presented as missionaries from the future, are parallel unreliable narrators. Ki represents "the Apparatus," the regimented and possibly even robotic government of the future which is all that stands between humanity and death by starvation as a consequence of overpopulation and constant warfare. Ki is an agent of change, possibly even a madman, who claims to represent the last hope for the survival of humanity against the institutions which threaten to reduce people to cogs in a vast machine. Both have fled to the past to preserve aspects of their future which are intertwined with a cafe waitress, Sabrina Conneur, whom Ti and Ki believe will be the mother of a scientist who will create the Apparatus but also eventually destroy it. Ti is uncreative but implacable, working Paris's bureaucracy to track down the woman, while Ki drags her on a twisted trail through the city's parks, museums, and underground in order to save her, though she constantly doubts his motives (but she sleeps with him anyway). Ki is eventually killed, but, in an ironic twist, Ti also dies when Sabrina lures him into a factory (heavy machinery is used through the film as a motif to indicate Ti's presence) and pushes him into the machinery. Sabrina is left in the factory to wonder if the Apparatus already exists around her, and whether survival of any kind in the future is possible.

The central point of criticism has to do with the future of the Apparatus and Sabrina's child. Ti is hunting Sabrina to prevent the birth of the person who will destroy the Apparatus, but without the child, the Apparatus will never be created. Ki is attempting to save her for the sake of the destruction of the Apparatus, but if she lives, the Apparatus will inevitably arise.

That the film is remembered at all is surely a result of many of its striking images. The one most cited is the page-turning montage where the landlord of Ti's pension bangs on the door and demands the rent. Ti, cleaning and reassembling a pistol, looks up into a mirror, then at the door. A series of pages flipping, turning up the words and phrases which make up his eventual response, is superimposed over the scene and is elegantly coordinated with his movements. Likewise, the heavy use of jump cuts to represent how Ki had become "unstuck" in time was a significant influence on later New Wave films. Ultimately, the film is regarded as a far inferior work to other New Wave attempts at science fiction such as Le Jetee and Alphaville, though its influence on both is clear.

Naturally (as avant garde critics say with some contempt), Cameron's 1984 remake vastly simplifies matters and mercilessly rips out the ambiguities and whatever elegance the film once had. The child whose birth is at issue is reduced to a savior of mankind, with the Apparatus reduced to a spontaneous development from computer networks. Ki and Sabrina's long discussions about the nature of time and the need for chaos against the backdrop of some of Paris's more attractive public places become nigh-wordless car chases across Los Angeles. And it appears that Cameron didn't understand that Ti's repeated promise to return to the locations he visited (frequently outside of regular hours) was a joke about his hidebound attitudes.
14th-Oct-2010 11:39 am - GURPS Low Tech
Almost exactly three years ago (October 23, 2007, to be precise), whswhs got in touch with me about collaborating on the new edition of GURPS Low-Tech. Today, it's out in PDF. It's a long time coming, but not so long as it took for the technologies it contains to develop.

(In case anyone's interested, I was responsible for chapters 2 and 3, though all of us contributed in ways large or small to other people's chapters.)

Next up, in the fullness of time, the hardback version and the three companions.
12th-Oct-2010 10:25 pm - Pirate skull dice tower

This is made out of a cheap, hollow plastic skull I got at the Halloween store for a buck. I cut the jaw out with a utility knife, cut a square hole in the top, and cut back the plate at the bottom of the skull a bit so that the jaw could be fit back in in an open position. It stands on a stack of vertebrae molded from nondescript modeling clay. The same clay fills in the jaw and makes a small ramp in the back of the skull. The skull is spritzed with stone-texture paint to provide a more interesting surface, and it and the vertebrae are painted black with a faint spray of gold for that very aged metal look.

After painting, the jaw is wired back to the skull with some brass wire. The various bones are stacked together with white silicone caulk as the cartilage. The patch is made from a bit of leather and an inexpensive aged copper chain from the craft store, and the eye is a cheap plastic gem from the craft store.

And, of course, this is a fully functional dice tower. Drop the dice in the top of the skull and the roll out through the mouth. Perfect for a game of Zombie Dice. Now if only they'd make Pirate Dice...
20th-Aug-2010 10:23 pm - More ballet in Galveston
According to RPG Countdown, it appears that Fantasy Tech 1 is this week's (half-month's?) top selling electronic RPG product. I'm also told that it finally kicked Dresden Files out of the #1 spot, which it has occupied for three months. I feel vaguely like I should apologize to Chad Underkoffler for demoting a book he worked on, and for doing so close to Chadtoberfest.
4th-Aug-2010 08:47 am - Speaking of unreal
As of this morning, GURPS Fantasy-Tech 1: The Edge of Reality has sold over 200 copies. Despite slightly higher initial sales, it took DF8 twice as long to hit that point. Nice to know it's selling, but I do wonder why.

This book is, to some extent, fallout from GURPS Low Tech. While writing Low Tech, we ruthlessly ruled out all kinds of speculative, discredited, and romantic low tech inventions. This book contains all of them and more.

The Edge of Reality continues my trend of books which do just what they say on the tin. Everything in it is from the fringes of what's real: imagined but impractical inventions (think Leonardo da Vinci's notebooks), misinterpretations by earlier scholars, prototypes which never caught on, and so on. In a way, it defines GURPS Low Tech as negative space.

It's also, in its weird science-ness, probably as close as I'll ever get to covering the same ground as Ken Hite.

Garden variety mouse with luxury fittings and smokestack.

Techniques and lessons learnedCollapse )

Next time I pair leather and faux-aged-brass, I think I'm going to try dark brown rather than black. Perhaps I can work some rivets in as well.
2nd-Jun-2010 11:31 am - Snark ribbon
The other day, my lovely and talented spouse was telling me about how an agnostic friend and her atheist long-term boyfriend met at a church function their respective parents had dragged them to. It's a cutely ironic story, but it got me thinking. Many of us are, from time to time, obliged to attend social functions we're not that interested in: weddings for distant relatives, recitals and performances of friends' children, church events while visiting family, and so on. I and many of my friends are capable of politely attending such events but are sufficiently geeky, tragically hip, post-Boomer, or simply socially averse to not enjoy them at all, sitting through them with a feeling of "This is not my beautiful life..."

What we need, then, is a means by which we can communicate to others the feeling of "I don't belong here. Help me enjoy this event on an ironic level!" Instead of smiling blankly at potato salad or somebody's christening, we can congregate in small groups, making up interesting and scandalous narratives about other guests, telling obscure jokes, providing learned commentary on proceedings, and commiserating about being so out of place.

For this purpose, I propose a "snark ribbon": a small bit of ribbon, black or perhaps purple, tied with two knots (as opposed to simply pinned in a loop, as other meaningful ribbons seem to be) and worn in a fairly inconspicuous but visible place, as on a purse or belt loop. If you see someone with a snark ribbon at a social event, sidle up to them and make an ironic comment. You'll have an interesting "how we met" story for anyone who makes the mistake of asking. I'd ask "Who's with me?", but I imagine I'll find out at the next children's birthday party I have to attend.
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