Saturday, April 30, 2011

BP Safety Awards

Sometimes you see a news story that makes you stop and say "wait, am I reading the Onion?" and when you realize you aren't, you figure, "I bet John Stewart's eyes just lit up, he's got material for a week, easy." A recent news story about how BP's safety people got bonuses and recognition for a year with an exceptional safety record was one of those. What a public relations disaster.

I don't know anything about how they came to the conclusion that they had a better-than-ever safety record for the year. It seems quite possible that, as John Stewart ended up saying, they have some kind of skewed rating system in which the entire Gulf oil spill counts as "one incident" and thus the same as someone cutting his finger -- well, maybe not quite that skewed, but certainly an unrealistic rating system.

But I did find myself thinking, hey, it'd be nice if we actually knew their methodology. More than that, I felt bad for the affected people, at least potentially. I don't know what really happened, and I'm sure we never will. But it's entirely possible that, somewhere in the vast expanses of BP's corporate structure, which employs thousands of people all over the world, there's a group of people who actually, really, did spectacular work this year on safety. But all their efforts and successes, and any attempt at recognition for them, will always be tarnished by the fact that some completely different group of people, who they never met and over whom they have no authority, perhaps on the other side of the world, happen to have really fucked up in an amazingly bad and amazingly public way. If that's what happened, wouldn't you have to feel a little bad for them? I mean, what if it were you, who'd busted your ass trying to improve safety and ended up achieving unprecedented success in your division, only to find the whole thing has to be brushed under the carpet because of someone ten thousand miles away who has nothing to do with you other than having the same logo on your letterhead?

Even if that's really what happened, even if the people who got this recognition actually did deserve a pat on the back (and I'm by no means saying that's the case, just that it could be), it was a colossally stupid blunder for BP to let their recognition become a public matter. Then again, the only really safe way to make sure it didn't become the public relations debacle it became is to not do it; anything strictly-internal still can come out. Alternately they could have tried to be explicit about justifying it, but really, would that have had the slightest chance of working? No. So ultimately, their only safe choice would be to deny those people any recognition.

I suppose injustices like this happen all the time. I know that there've been times at my office where, even though we're a small shop and out of the public eye, someone deserved recognition that they couldn't get because of how it would look because of something that someone wholly unrelated had done. In a huge international corporation it seems almost inevitable that it's going to happen more. C'est la vie.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

The Shawshank Redemption

After the last few movies I've watched, the beginning of this classic prison movie had me worried I was in for another round of grim gloom. Certainly things start dark and get darker. But I was hoping that the title's promise of redemption might brighten the tone before the movie was over.

Incidentally, in terms of brightness, I hadn't really realized how dark Taxi Driver was in the cinematographical sense until the sharp contrast. Nearly every scene, even the daytime scenes, in Taxi Driver has a sort of dark and jaundiced quality, because that's the visual style they were going for. (Either that, or I just got a bad rip. But I don't think so.) Even though there was a lot of gloom in The Shawshank Redemption, the imagery was crisp and usually well-lit -- even in the dark you could see stuff.

I don't think there's a single thing about The Shawshank Redemption with which I can find fault. A friend, who'd read the book, said that the pacing in the movie seemed wrong. I can well imagine that it might be different from the book, and therefore wrong in that it conveys a different feel or a different story from the book. But taken on its own, I didn't find any problems with the pacing. Nor with anything else. Well, once or twice it's a little cloying, but in a very minor way.

The movie also managed to pull a switcheroo on me that was surprisingly effective. It was clear something was going to happen, and it was clear that we'd been seeing things that were setting it up, but it was also clear that the movie was telegraphing a direction for the story that it just wasn't going to go. This was a decoy; no one was fooled, but it did distract enough so that the actual way the story went, despite having been visibly set up in front of us all along, was not obvious.

The subject matter does somewhat circumscribe how great I can find the movie, and this is not something I'll ever feel a great draw to return to; but within those bounds, it's a solid, appealing movie.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Only the survivors get to be nostalgic

Those were the good old days, when people weren't so dumb or weak, back when we were kids. Parents disciplined their kids instead of coddling them, and we were stronger, and we didn't have all this technology in the way of everything, and so on. You know the drill.

It's awfully compelling, tears off into easily digested chunks, makes us all feel better about ourselves and our lives, and that's all on top of the natural endorphin-release of nostalgia. But it's also a load of hooey.

Were we better disciplined? Certainly there are some things that they do these days for kids that seem ridiculous and overwrought. Does that mean that everything that has been figured out in the last forty years is completely wrong-headed? Certainly not. If you're the kind of person who came out okay in that style of child-rearing, and that leaves you well-balanced enough to be able to pontificate nostalgically, that doesn't prove anything. Are you sure that everything about how your generation was raised is perfect? After all, the world you're in right now is the world that was created by the way we were raised. Is the world you live in right now perfect? Is everyone well-adjusted, happy, rational, well-informed, and emotionally balanced? Maybe there was room for improvement after all. The fact is that you only are in a position to make self-righteous statements because you were one of those ones who did well enough to make them -- and that's even assuming you're totally content with yourself, and how everything about your life turned out.

Were we tougher because we weren't coddled? Sure, there's some evidence that some of the ways we protect our kids from exposure to some things might prevent them developing some resistances, and that there's some overprescription of some drugs, and other things like that. But that's a small factor compared to the number of kids in our generation who didn't get a fair break. People with special needs, or people whose health didn't do well because of exposure to things we can avoid now, or people whose illnesses are treated better now. Despite a world where, for largely economic and ecological reasons, disease spreads faster than ever, kids are healthier than ever. Was everything about how we were raised really that ideal, that lacking in room for improvement?

The common theme of all those bits of nostalgia that are just repeated without being thought through, in addition to the white-washing of how wonderful your own life really is, is the fact that you have the luxury of being able to pontificate about it because you did all right. But there's all the other ones who didn't. The real question is whether there's more of them now than then, or less.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Hot tubs

One of the things we thought about spending some of the frivolous money from the inheritance on was a hot tub to put out on the deck outside the bedroom. Turned out to cost more than we wanted to spend on frivolities, which made us ask, will we ever get one? As Siobhan put it, if we're not going to get one when we come into money, when would we ever?

Well, I was looking at the prices and I figure if we really decided we wanted one, I could start socking away a bit of money and probably get one in a year or two. But I really don't think I'm going to. Not just because it's money that could be put to better use, though. On thinking more about it, even if someone gave us one free, I don't think we'd keep it.

The problem is the ongoing costs to run the thing -- not just in dollars but in environmental impact. Think about it. You've got two choices. Keep the heat running all the time so it'll be hot-tub hot whenever you want to use it, and pay a huge, huge fortune in electricity costs just for the few times you actually get to use it. Or wait until you decide you want to use it, and then turn the heat on, and wait. Depending on the type of hot tub, it either takes a few hours, or a full day, to get to full warmth. When are you going to want to use a hot tub and not mind waiting hours or a day to do it? That kind of takes the fun out of having one.

A hot tub might (might!) make sense to run in a place like a hotel or health club where a lot of different people can benefit from it, so it can be useful for most of the time it's heated up. But there's just no way we could actually use it for more than a tiny fraction of the time we were heating it. Not with just us.

So even if someone handed us the hot tub it wouldn't be worth plugging it in. In fact, even if someone handed us the hot tub and paid our resultingly huge electric bill in perpetuity, I think I couldn't justify having it turned on, just because of the wastefulness of all the energy used for so little benefit.

And that's not even considering the amount of time we'd spend on taking care of it, all the water-cleaning and maintenance. Probably that would add to more time than we would actually spend in it, considering the weather in Vermont. It's just impossible to make it worth having. It'd be nice to have a hot tub available once in a while, on those nights it'd sure be relaxing to sink into one, but there's just no way to make privately owning one work.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Has Morgan Freeman ever made a stinker?

Michael Caine is a talented, well-respected actor who has done scores of different movies and different types of movies. He's been involved in some great movies, but he's also been in a fair number of stinkers -- movies that aren't just bad, but are almost universally reviled. In his case, it's apparently because of his work ethic; for a while he felt it was his obligation as an actor to take whatever jobs he got.

Sean Connery has a similar career, but not a similar excuse -- at least so far as I know. He just seems to have a knack for taking really bad movies along with really good ones. And his really bad ones are, in some cases, really really bad.

Think of any actor who's been around long enough to do movies of a variety of types, and then try to think of a stinker they've done. In nearly every case, one comes to mind rather quickly. No matter how good an actor is, they all seem to have run across a film that turned out terrible.

While watching The Shawshank Redemption, I found myself thinking that maybe Morgan Freeman is an exception. I haven't really gone over his filmography with a fine-toothed comb, but even giving it a fair amount of thought, nothing stands out. Closest I can come is Evan Almighty, but while it was a disappointment and certainly not a modern classic, it's not exactly a total groaner, it's just not that great. Maybe there's a stinker that I don't know, though. But even if there's an obscure stinker he's done, that still puts him head and shoulders above just about any actor with a career as long and varied as his.

The really tricky thing is to think of other actors about whom you can say the same thing. Who else has managed to avoid the stinker trap?

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Taxi Driver

A lot of the movies that are amongst the best movies of all time, according to this or that authority on such things, make me feel at the end like "okay, so, now what?" Is that the mystery ingredient that makes a movie great -- the failure, at the end, to have any clear sense of a story having been told with a particular point or conclusion?

You might be thinking I disliked Taxi Driver even more than I've disliked a lot of the other "must see" movies on my list, but that's not really true. There was a bit more to like about it than some of the movies I've watched this way recently. There was more suspense, more eagerness to see what would happen next, and the fact that it didn't end the way it seemed inevitable that it would maybe contributes to that.

On the other hand, the way it did end felt entirely unsatisfying. The final twist seems to be nothing more than "it happened that way because the writer says it did" and since the explanation for how it came to happen that way happens off-camera it never has to be justified. Saying it seems implausible doesn't buy much, because we know so little about how it could have happened. But it is implausible; and the fact that this gets hidden behind a big blob of ambiguity only makes the sense of being dissatisfied with the ending that much worse.

You know what else is weird about it? In a way, it almost feels like a Hollywood tacked-on happy ending. Okay, it's not exactly happy ending material in the usual sense. But compared to the tone of everything else in the movie, it's wildly unjustified in how positive it is. Is that, in fact, the point of the movie: that by the end, a fairly miserable and lonely existence can seem like an implausibly positive outcome? If so, it was only achieved by unvarnished trickery.

I also have to admit that I don't see what's the big deal about the famous "You talkin' to me?" scene. Maybe it's just gotten diluted from overexposure. But in the context of the movie, it was just one scene out of dozens with the same tone and feel and content, and I'm not sure why that one, and not one of the others, is the one everyone makes a fuss over.

In the end, the only reason I'll remember the movie is because it's been made such a big deal out of that I felt obligated to pay close attention and remember things, but even given that, I bet most of it melts away in my memory. What is there about it to stick with you? Clearly, something, for a lot of people, but I don't know what. About the only thing that grips is that twist -- and that twist feels entirely like the filmmaker yanking my chain, not the story taking me by surprise, so that's not going to haunt me. Anyone can write a story in which the rules suddenly change near the end, in which there turns out to be a gun on the mantle that we never saw in the first act, but that doesn't make it art.

Maybe it's just one of those movies that is powerful for sending a message that I already got. I don't know if that's enough explanation, though. Plenty of books and movies have felt powerful for me despite me already feeling familiar with their themes or messages. Maybe it's just that there's nothing there but the message, so if you haven't gotten that message before, you feel the impact of the message and then give credit to the whole movie for it, but if the message isn't new to you, the movie turns out to have not much else to offer. Whereas other movies might have a message but also have other stuff going on, so even if the message doesn't take root, the movie can still be an incredible experience.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

North by Northwest

The next in my series of movies I watched because I should was North by Northwest, an Alfred Hitchcock thriller about a case of mistaken identity. In truth, I have seen precious little Hitchcock, so a few more of his movies are on my list.

Given how so many of those "must-see" movies have turned out to be not much fun to watch, as my previous reviews have documented, and given that this was a dip into an older movie than most of those, considering how little I usually enjoy older movies, I wasn't expecting much. So I was pleasantly surprised to find it mostly engaging, one of the few to make me look forward to the next block I could watch. This sounds like an obvious thing in hindsight: Hitchcock is famous for suspense, after all. However, lots of well-respected actors, directors, and producers are famous for lots of things that just don't resonate for me, so I didn't take it at all as a foregone conclusion that his movies would be suspenseful for me.

There were a few things about the movie I felt weren't all that great. A surprisingly large amount of the movie feels a little rambling, in that there's a lot of time spent that doesn't particularly advance the plot, but simply keep whatever current piece of the plot is going on going on. That's not really a cricitism, as all of that stuff does work, but it is an area where one might draw a line between a good movie and a timeless classic.

I can't be too critical about the unnecessarily elaborate schemes that the villains attempt to use to kill off the protagonist, for which there is little or no explanation offered (you can stretch "try to make the murder look like an accident" only so far, nowhere near far enough for some of these schemes), because Hitchcock clearly also noticed the same thing, since he has the protagonist take the time to hang a lampshade on it in one scene -- he asks the villain what the next elaborate murder attempt will be, dipping him in molten steel? (Sorry, Mr. Thornhill, you're no T-1000.) I guess if the movie's going to make fun of itself on that point, I can't really hold it against it.

Some of the innuendo-laced flirtation between the male and female leads seemed to go on far longer than I had a stomach for. This is just one of those things where movies were just done differently back then, and I don't have a taste for it. (That doesn't mean I always prefer everything about how movies are done now. For instance, I prefer having cameras to be steady and cuts to be far fewer than modern filmmakers do it. But ten solid minutes of clumsy-seeming double-entendre makes me say "oh, get on with it!")

I found some of the action sequences a little less believable than I might have liked. The famous (infamous?) cornfield scene confounds not just with the impracticality of the method of assassination but also the coincidences required for its end. The climbing-chase near the end seems wildly unlikely for skilled climbers in proper gear, let alone people in business suits or high heels carrying monkey statues. There were a couple of others, but they were fairly minor.

And I still don't see a good reason for the title. About all I can guess is that the action mostly takes place in the northern part of the country -- some in the northeast (New York), some in the northwest (South Dakota), and some in between. I guess it doesn't have to have any better reason for the title, but I feel like I would have been happier if it did. Maybe I'm just missing it.

And, okay, Cary Grant is a very handsome man, even by today's standards, let alone by those of the time. Even so, the movie treats him like he's Adonis. It's very glib about the idea that every female who sees him immediately lusts for him to such an extent they'd actually take action on the feeling if they could. This is most striking in a very off-hand scene where he's making an escape through, of all things, a hospital room, and the woman in the hospital bed, in the space of a couple of seconds without dialog, makes clear that despite being in a hospital bed presumably because of illness or injury, she wouldn't mind if he lingered a little while and joined her. It seemed affected to me.

All that is fairly minor, though. The meat and potatoes of this movie is the plot, and by and large, the plot does the two things it needs to do: it holds together (in that everything in it, in hindsight, makes sense, but wasn't always obvious beforehand), and it drives the action (making you want to know what's going to happen next). There are exceptions but they are minor (the unnecessarily elaborate methods of murder being the largest one, already mentioned).

There's one thing that I felt was missing, but I'm sure it's intentionally missing. Given the real nature of Mr. Kaplan, there's no good reason I can see why Vandamm's men would have mistaken Mr. Thornhill for him at the start of the movie. Sure, it's plain why later in the movie his actions corroborate their suspicions, against his intentions; but what got the ball rolling? I'm sure to Hitchcock this question was of no more importance than what the MacGuffin is, but I feel that there should have been at least a little hint of some excuse, just because the agency had every reason to ensure that no one would ever seem to be Kaplan, and Thornhill certainly wasn't doing Kaplanesque things, and didn't even fit Kaplan's fake clothes. About the closest thing we get is the chance that he's physically in the hotel Kaplan's supposed to be staying at, but is not staying at that hotel, is simply meeting some people in its lounge, the same as scores of other people are doing that day.

My last observation about the movie is to wonder if, in one scene near the end, Hitchcock is trying to hint-without-saying that Vandamm and Leonard are or were gay lovers. No single one of the things that make me think this is suspicious on its own. Once, Leonard makes a reference that seems out of nowhere to his "female intuition", another time, Vandamm accuses Leonard of being jealous of Vandamm's tryst with Ms. Kendall; and there are a couple of others that are all similarly innocuous enough that they're easily brushed off. However, they all happen in a very short period of time. (And it doesn't hurt that Vandamm was played by James Mason, who can come across a bit effete even when he's being a ringleader.) I find myself thinking, if Hitchcock had it in mind that they had been (or still were) lovers, that's precisely the only way he could have tried to telegraph it to those of us who might notice it, without drawing an unhappy reaction from everyone else (in 1959, even Rock Hudson couldn't be gay on screen). Or am I just reading too much into it?

In all, I enjoyed the film more than most of those in my recent efforts, and I've added a couple more Hitchcock to the list -- though I'll space them out amongst ones I don't expect to enjoy. (Next up -- in fact, I'm about 1/3 of the way through as of this writing -- is Taxi Driver.)

Saturday, April 09, 2011

Stick your head out the window!

Automobiles are very unnatural. Nothing in the evolution of animals really prepares any animal for it, or gives any animal a context in which to make sense of it. Instead, aeons of deep-seated instinct tell every animal that certain sensations, as of motion, mean certain things, and should be responded to in certain ways, because those ways lead to survival. The normal reaction to something as unnatural as an automobile ought to be instinctual reactions that make transporting an animal by automobile a difficult proposition at best.

There is, of course, one exception that is provided for by the nature of automobiles: mankind. It is easy, if one makes an effort of imagination, to conceive of forms of locomotion that mankind might have tried to invent, but which he could not have put up with because they were too disorienting, ran too counter to his survival instincts, and so which he never bothered to invent, or to try to invent. Actually, that's not true: it's not that easy, because we are conditioned not to think of those possibilities. You have to find the preconceptions we don't usually question (such as the fact that we look forward and down, but rarely up) and then question them. But it's certainly possible. The point remains: the methods of locomotion we invent are those which are suited to us, or we wouldn't've invented them.

So when you think about it, isn't it really a handy coincidence that the vast majority of dogs, one of mankind's most domesticated animal companions, not only tolerate but actively enjoy riding in a car? They stick a head out, loll their tongues, and savor the wind blowing through their ears. Very few dogs have any problem with it, and most of them seem to delight in it.

There's nothing about the circumstances of how dogs got to be one of mankind's first and best domesticated animals that really selected for this. Nothing mankind was doing with early dogs had any correlation to the form of locomotion that humans would invent tens of thousands of years later. In fact, most of the other animals that humans domesticated don't like car travel, with reactions ranging from displeasure to an actual need for blinders or sedation, even when their involvement in it is nothing more than sitting on the back seat and not really having to see it happening. Even in those circumstances, where the awareness that the animal even is in a car seems remote, there's enough frisson between instincts and situation to make cats howl, and most animals get at least nervous, if not panicky. But dogs revel in it.

One can't help wonder what odd little juxtaposition of instincts is playing out in their heads. Their simple joy makes you think they're thinking, "I'm running so fast, and I don't even feel tired!" That's a glib and amusing thought, but no animal dumb enough to not be able to tell what running feels like could last very long, particularly one whose primary method of getting food is running it down. It's just too vital a process to be affected by that big a disconnect.

The more you think about it, the more impressive a happy coincidence it is that dogs are comfortable in, and even happy in, cars. Then again, if they weren't, it wouldn't change much. We take our cats to the vet in cars even though they, guided by quite sensible instincts, hate it, and say so repeatedly and volubly. If our dogs disliked it similarly, we could just keep them on short leashes, only take them out when we had to (as we do with cats), use operant condition to train them to tolerate it quietly, and at worst, use a sedative. But every time my dog is loving the heck out of being in the car, I'm glad for her sake that the wild coincidence, that the thing we invented for ourselves also happens in some completely different way to suit them too, just worked out.