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Saturday, Jul 12, 2008

The late ‘60s/early ‘70s was a boon for serious science fiction. Thanks in part to the success of 2001: A Space Odyssey and Planet of the Apes, allegorical speculation would rule the cinematic landscape until the movies visited a certain War plagued galaxy far, far away. These films used ideas and characters, not cutesy robots or genre-bending action sequences, as a way of getting their point across. Sometimes, they were preachy and unbearable. At other instances, they became the language for all cinema to come. In the case of 1974’s Phase IV, the consensus is clearly divided. On one side are the devotees who appreciate its ecological bent and entomological realism. On the other are critics who decry its smart bug set-up, snickering all the way to its less than crystal clear conclusion.


Of course, the man in charge was perhaps the wrong choice for such a project. Saul Bass was never known as a filmmaker. His title credit sequences for such major motion pictures as The Man with the Golden Arm, Anatomy of a Murder, and Vertigo set a standard that, even today, remains unmatched. But aside from a few short films, he had never made a feature before Phase IV. There have been controversial debates over his involvement in the work of Hitchcock (including claims he actually directed the shower sequence in Psycho), but nothing here indicates such a skill set. Instead, this future shock look at nature run amuck is a great deal like Robert Wise’s adaptation of Michael Crichton’s Andromeda Strain. Science overwhelms suspense, with occasional bouts of illogic and endless talking juxtaposed alongside brilliant miniature cinematography.



We learn that, as part of some cosmic anomaly (which may or may not be alien driven), Earth is under the influence of certain “phases”. These shifts cause the ant population in particular to rapidly evolve, developing language skills, a hive mentality, and an ability to design and execute geometrically complex structures. Scientists James Lesko and Dr. Ernest Hubbs are sent into the desert to study the creatures, to learn why they are acting so strangely, and hopefully develop a pesticide that will kill them. While farmers like Mr. Eldridge refuse to leave their land, others have taken off to friendlier environs. Of course, the ants won’t tolerate anyone getting in their way. Eventually, all that is left are Lesko, Hubbs, and the Eldridge girl, Kendra. It appears that the super intelligent insects have plans for them as well.


It’s easy to see why Phase IV captivated audiences 30 years ago. With its amazing bug footage, and psychobabble scripting, it’s The Hellstrom Chronicle (an obvious influence) taken into Twilight Zone territory. Thanks to the competent work of everyone behind and in front of the camera, and the ambiguous nature of the narrative, it’s the kind of free associative freak out that drove the counter culture crazy in the waning days of the post-peace protest age. Since Nigel Davenport and Michael Murphy have to do almost all the heavy lifting here, they become the most important component of the film’s success. Without them, all we’d have are ravishing views of insect interaction, various luminescent species of ant vying for the crown of best acid trip accoutrement.



Of the two, Murphy is more misplaced. He gets in the swing of things early and often, but frequently ventures out into “hey dude” territory - especially when Lynne Frederick’s nonentity Kendra shows up. He’s clearly intended to be the love interest, but there’s so much outdated computer chaos going on that there’s little time (or chemistry) for romance. Davenport is the major mad scientist, the man who finds himself taken in by the charge he’s been given and unable to control his fits of ego. When he starts raving toward the end, the result of a badly infected bite and too little sleep, he sounds positively potty. But for the most part, he’s the yin to Murphy’s yang, the faux scholarly cement that keeps the entire film from unraveling into nonsensical silliness.


Thanks to Bass’s belief in the mostly silent ant material, sequences where we as an audience have to piece together the reasons behind the bugs’ unusual behavior, Phase IV has an inherent mystery about it. There’s no real attempt at unraveling the nature of the various changes, just that after each one, the insects get more aggressive (and successful) in their attacks. The various sand mounds make a startling impression, including a collection of monoliths that look like statuary singers keening skyward. And this was all done in the days before CGI and complicated physical effects, the result of painstaking nature photography. It’s spellbinding to look at.



For many fans of the film, the only way to enjoy it was to find an out of print VHS version, wait for some obscure cable channel to rerun it late one night, or pray you could find a MST3K fan who owned a copy of the series’ initial days as a local Minnesota UHF broadcast (they tackled the movie with their typical in theater commentary satire). Now, thanks to Legend, the Paramount cast off has been picked up and polished off. While the lack of any supplemental features is disheartening, the nice DVD transfer, capturing the original theatrical aspect ratio, is a marvel to look at. While purists have balked at the lack of the entire print (supposedly, there’s a longer version of the movie out there with extended bits as part of the 2001-style ending), this is an excellent version of Phase IV.


While the concept of super intelligent insects usurping man and his place of power on the planet seems laughable, Saul Bass and the bravura camera work of Dick Bush make Phase IV a worthy addition to the second tier section of ‘60s/‘70s sci-fi. Sure, it has its flaws, and frequently finds itself bogged down in ancient technological minutia, but for every hackneyed hole-punch moment there’s an engaging scope enhanced by the film’s visual wonders.  Saul Bass may not have saved serious speculative fiction from its soon to be blockbuster ways, but his exploratory insect opera has a right to be considered among the category’s many major accomplishments.


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Friday, Jul 11, 2008
Poor Gordon has seen better days.

Hey, didja know there’s a Wii version of Hell’s Kitchen coming out this year?  It’ll even have a virtual Gordon Ramsay berating you after every misstep (though the unfortunate ‘T’ rating ensures that Ramsay will be a bit toned down from his TV self; I don’t think you can tell someone to “f(beep) off” and keep a ‘T’ rating…unless, of course, Ubisoft decides to fix this by inserting an audible beep where the “uck” would be, in keeping with the TV show, which would actually make me unnaturally happy.


That said…who else thinks Gordon’s devilish (ha) good looks have kind of gone down the drain in his video game rendering?  He looks a little bit more like a clean-cut Nick Nolte (with oddly wavy hair) than himself in this screen, and while his mouth is contorted in rage, his eyes scream indifference.  Also, his right cheek is in danger of falling off his face.  That’d be a nasty surprise in a plate of risotto.


Still, I have to play this game, if only for the fact that I keep dreaming up features like character customization, implemented for the sole purpose of hearing virualRamsay shout inappropriate things like “what’s wrong? Can the munchkin not reach the pot of boiling f(beep)ng water?!”


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Friday, Jul 11, 2008

In Technology Review, Bryant Urstadt has an interesting article about the potential for advertising on social networks. Obvioulsy, Facebook’s flubbed Beacon program, which notified member’s networks about the stuff they were doing on other internet sites, has raised suspicions that users may demand better privacy protections, but this doesn’t seem to correspond to the generational cohort’s general eagerness for indiscriminate online sharing. You would think people will eventually embrace something like Beacon, because it makes them seem like theya re so famous and important, their every mundane action must be tracked and reported. Maybe they are savvy enough not to be flattered by automated attention, and I’d probably just be creeped out if some friend of mine told me, “Hey, I saw you went online and bought a new pair of New Balances.” But then, I’m not of the generation whose members are supposed to be preoccupied with their own notoriety. But perhaps no one wants to be recruited without their consent and without recompense into an endorsement campaign. I’m sure if Beacon credited Facebook users a few cents for every time it blasted out a user’s shopping activity, more people would be eager to opt into it.


As Urstadt notes, “The problems with social-network advertising revolve around three main issues: attention, privacy, and content.” The privacy issues include not only the mining by advertisers of the personal information you supply to facilitate your social connections, but also, as with Beacon, the use of that personal information—some of it collected passively as your online activity is surveilled and logged—as leverage to persuade others. People may not mind being targeted thanks to information they supply—in fact that can often be somewhat flattering (though I don’t feel particularly important when Amazon sends me emails recommending books for me to buy). MySpace is going full steam ahead with “HyperTargeting,” which seeks to show you ads that you’ll find relevant based on the information your online activity makes available:


In 2007, MySpace launched its HyperTargeting system, which scans users’ profiles for information about their interests and demographics. It sorts the profiles into 10 rough categories—such as sports and entertainment—that are subdivided into more than 1,000 narrower categories, such as baseball or a specific film. (E-mail and personal messages are currently not scanned at either Facebook or MySpace.) Says Adam Bain, president of the Fox Interactive Media Audience Network, “People are essentially hand-raising every single day on MySpace and other social-media sites. What we want to do is take that and put it into easy-to-buy segments.”


Since these ads are more likely to be relevant, users, so the thinking goes, are far less likely to be turned off by them. (The danger is that the social networking experience will become so unpleasant that users will abandon them altogether—that MySpace, Facebook etc. will go the way of AOL and that nice cluster of advertisment targets will be dispersed to the winds.)


But it is a different matter when your personal information is not being used to target you but to target your friends—this makes you into a collaborator, an informant, part of the panopticon administering distributed surveillance in our postmodern dystopia. The temptation for advertisers and the networks themselves to take advantage of this possibility, to use you for your connections, may be impossible for them to resist.


Urstadt also highlights the problem of “content adjacency,” i.e., what the ads are placed next to, which can be unpredictable, as users frequently change the content they supply. Companies don’t want to be perceived as sponsoring some webpage full of neo-Nazi slogans and Prussian Blue videos, for example, though Facebook apparently performs a lot of “user content moderation” according to one of its spokespeople. Content adjacency is obviously a problem for advertisers, but it’s also problematic for content providers—I’m always surprised to see how this blog is contextualized by the ads, and how what I’m writing about is at times trivialized and my authority potentially undermined. The same would certainly happen for the cool-conscious, if attracting the right sort of ads on one’s profile pages could be brought into play as a mark of distinction. Advertising always has the potential for calling into question the credibility of what it appears to be sponsoring. Perhaps you really are trying to be very authentic in your profile—the presence of ads, which are generally oblique and often intentionally misleading in their presentation of information, undermines that authenticity and makes it seem like you are posturing too. The ads create a climate of persuasion, affecting all the discourse that is near it. Rather than mount a futile fight against this, users are likely to assume that the pages are advertisements for themselves and present their information accordingly, with the intent of convincing viewers of something about themselves rather than merely being. (It seems like this is generally true already. One doesn’t just exist within the virtual world of the network; one instead develops a profile and a network and then grooms them.) The social network then becomes a place where one can acquire no experience directly, where one cannot simply be in the moment and taking in events. Instead one is always positioning, repositioning and posing, and collecting people’s responses. In other words, it’s a place to revel in self-consciousness.


An unrelated question. Who is dumb enough to do this: “Chamath Palihapitiya expects Facebook to generate revenue by selling a variety of such services to users. The site has rolled out a “gift” program, in which friends spend real money to “give” friends virtual items, such as an image of a box of tissues with a get-well note.” This makes even less sense to me than spending real money to trick out your Second Life avatar. This seems like conspicuous waste par excellence, however, with an audience roped into the transaction by definition. So maybe it will really take off.


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Friday, Jul 11, 2008
by Roman Kuebler
When the band announced that they were headed into the studio to begin work on their new record, having soldiered through personnel changes and struggles at their label, Lookout Records, it seemed like an excellent time to catch up and to allow them to speak for themselves by cataloging the happenings. Entries One through Four focused on the band in studio, laboring with overdubs and trying to catching lightning in a bottle, or at least on 2" tape. Entry Five has Oranges Band frontman Roman Kuebler exploring why exactly albums take so long to make, or at least why this album is taking so long. -- Jon Langmead


WHAT THE… ?!!


Alright seriously, why in the hell does this take so long? I mean writing, rehearsal, recording, mixing… it all takes a long time and I can’t figure out exactly why. Well, I guess I know but only because I do it. I think it’s me… drrf!?!


We started recording this album in late January. Aaaaand, that was five months ago. The only thing that is slightly more embarrassing than having only finished seven songs in that amount of time, is that this is just my fifth blog entry. Thanks to all the PopMatters readers and writers for being especially patient. But wait, why DOES this take so long?


Being in a semi-professional rock band is a full time hustle. Anyone out there drumming up shows and tours and trying to make albums and sell them knows that we are very tiny fish in a very large sea. Making ends meet as a band is difficult, well, I don’t know how difficult it is because, see, I have a job. I have always had jobs since I was 12 and started my paper route. I have been doing a lot of freelance and temporary jobs over the years to keep free enough so that when it’s time to get in the van… I can get in the van. Thing about doing temp jobs though is that when there is work you had better do it, cause it might not be there tomorrow. Anyways, reason (excuse) number one is… my work was, like, totally busy. I build architectural models for a living, and yes, it is an awesome job. Every once in a while though, for a couple weeks or sometimes a month or so, you can do nothing else. That’s the job. So for me this year, those months were April and May. Luckily, I get paid by the hour.


Somehow, somewhere in my life, i turned into a critical freak. I have always considered myself a reasonably laid back guy, but I think I might be wrong about that because I seem to be able to find fault with almost anything… anything I do that is. I am a little more lenient with other folks, though Dave might not agree (so don’t ask). Reason (excuse) two is… it takes me four hours to do one crappy lead vocal take. I don’t know how long Axl Rose takes, but it can’t be much longer than that.


Speaking earlier of being small fish in a large sea, we are not currently “enlabeled”. Our last record fulfilled our contract with our then label, Lookout Records. Since then we have been adrift in the sea of bands and music and albums and all that. It is a curious and uncertain place to be, but the upside is that no one is nagging at us about finishing this record. Wait, is that good or bad. I mean, five months?! We could certainly use a wee bit of nagging (from someone other than my father, that is) Anyways, Reason (excuse) three is… no one is knocking down our door to finish this thing.


But that is not such a bad thing. Because one thing that has been really cool about this process is that I have had opportunity to reflect and consider every stage in the process. It’s a luxury that will definitely result in a better product. I am sure of it! I mean it is a little bit torturous to constantly consider and conspire and create and re-create and tweak and change, but it seems to be for the best. Reason (excuse) four is… trust me, it’s for the best!


And instead of tweaking and considering and changing and altering this blog entry. I am just going to send it off. No pictures this time, cause what does a picture of me taking forever to do something look like? Wait, I have one of those….


Next time, guest players in the house. The all picture blog!


Roman Kuebler


Tagged as: the oranges band
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Friday, Jul 11, 2008

From this week’s Denver Post:


The 34-year-old Denver man also was sentenced to 10 years in state prison Tuesday for checking out roughly 1,400 books and DVDs and reselling most of them online. About 500 items were recovered when Pilaar was picked up on an unrelated arrest warrant last year.


Working in a DVD rental outlet myself, I’m all too aware of this thing people have with renting and borrowing other people’s merchandise and somehow, for some reason, laying personal claim to that merchandise. It’s as difficult a notion to describe as it is to fully understand. Placing myself into the mindset of the particular renter/borrower I’m talking about means I subscribe to a list of commandments that might read like this:


1. I paid for this rental product, therefore I can treat it poorly.
2. I do not own this rental product myself and do not wish repeated use of it, therefore I can treat it poorly.
3. I paid for this rental product, and while I do not rightfully own it, I can keep it if I want to for as long as I want to.
4. I paid for this rental product, and if I return it late or damaged, it doesn’t matter to anyone at all.


Case in point: The Bucket List, a much-anticipated rental, was released on DVD on Wednesday, 2 July. By that weekend, I dealt with the following issues directly related to the above commandments:


1. More than one customer required a swap because the not-yet-one-week-old DVDs were scratched.
2. Such a big release meant many customers placed weekend reservations. At least one of those customers was forced to hire something else for their weekend viewing as copies of the DVD were not returned when due.


Anyone who’s worked in DVD rental knows these issues well. On a larger scale, it means repeated customer dissatisfaction and major loss of revenue. My store has tried and tested systems in place for combating these issues, and while they work well, they cannot hope to eradicate the problem entirely. No amount of late fees, I’ve learned, will deter certain customers from continued delinquency. And, as the Denver library case highlights, no amount of precautions taken when signing up new customers will remove the possibility of outright theft. I’ve spent the last three months stocktaking my store’s weekly rentals. The amount of items I’ve had to mark as damaged or stolen is absurd. Because of it, I’ve tightened my store’s procedures for signing up new customers even further. 


Discussions about delinquent renters are favoured between my mum and myself. She’s a long-term librarian, and we live and work in the same small town. We know each other’s pain and understand each other’s frustration—sometimes intimately as her delinquents are, more often than not, my delinquents as well. These discussions almost always end in us shaking our heads as to why people think it’s okay to treat rental and borrowing services so poorly. My DVDs come back scratched, her books come back torn and battered, if they come back at all. Is theft not theft when money is handed over, or when a person behind a counter hands you the item in question? Is the passing between hands giving, not ever to be confused with taking?


Recently, my mum kept me updated on a situation involving a specially ordered book for a customer that subsequently went missing. The customer—or patron, as mum calls them—special ordered an old book on farming from the State Library of Victoria. This included a surcharge of about $5.00. Such orders are rarely placed, as responsibility falls on the ordering library to make sure the book is returned in excellent condition. Mum’s crew, wishing to do their job and to assist customer with their needs, ordered the book. The money was paid, and the customer and book promptly disappeared. The book came back just a few weeks ago, several months after it was “borrowed”. Not coincidentally, the borrower returned soon after to begin borrowing again.


This is not an unusual occurrence, which again speaks to that mentality customers have that they can use and abuse libraries as they see fit. What makes that above-mentioned patron think he will be welcomed back with open arms? And yet, there he was. Had he taken a rental car, and returned that a few months after the due date, you think he’d know not to go back in for another spin. But a library? Who really cares, right?


I have the same issues at my store. We’re a town that sees a lot of seasonal workers during the Summer months. They will often start memberships, rent DVDs and leave, only to return the following year to have another go. “You still have these movies out,” I might tell the bronzed backpacker. “That was ages ago,” they might respond, expecting a clean slate after just so much time has passed. I’m constantly arguing with customers that just because a late fee is five years old, doesn’t automatically invalidate it. Are you going to ask a bank for a home loan in 2008 when you’ve not made one single attempt to pay off your car loan from 2003?


Libraries, mum and I often conclude, are just not viewed in the same way as other businesses. Customers have been known in both establishments to become enraged over late fees or replacement charges. Some become quite abusive. All of my colleagues, past and present, have stories of threats and abuse regarding fees and charges. One of my former co-workers endured a customer who, after being denied service due to a large late fee, took a moment when exiting the store to turn back and run his finger across his throat from ear to ear in the universal sign for “You’re dead”. What is it about our service that riles people so much, to this kind of response level? You abuse the service, there are consequences.


You know, I would be willing to bet rather heavily that the Denver man, sitting in his prison cell, is flummoxed that library theft got him 10 years. As flummoxed, I’d further bet, as the abusive people mum and I run into on a weekly basis would be at the consequences of their actions should we start reporting them.


But we can’t be doing that, can we? After all, they’re just books.


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