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Tuesday, Jun 17, 2008

I found out today that Paddington Bear is about to turn 50.


To be honest, I’m more familiar with Paddington the TV star, than the one featured in Michael Bond’s books. I still can’t haul on galoshes without flashing back to Paddington’s clunky red pair. He really was a staple of childhood, waiting to be watched at 3.30 every afternoon between Sesame Street and Chocky.


This was in the mid-80s. Turns out, Paddington has been around a whole lot longer than that. Michael Bond is still around, too, and is excited to celebrate his character’s anniversary with Paddington: Here and Now, the first Paddington book published in 30 years. Bond had this to say about the bear and his new book:


One of the very nice things about chronicling Paddington’s adventures is that although the world has changed considerably over the past 30 years, he remains exactly the same—eternally optimistic and ever open to what life has to offer.


The Telegraph talks Paddington here, and there’s a great story about the creation of Paddington Bear teddies over at Times Online.


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Tuesday, Jun 17, 2008

In an arena where many do their job without much exposure to the limelight, Stan Winston was a God. It’s a term tossed around regularly by the geek community, but in referencing this F/X mastermind, the label definitely fit. He brought the Terminator to life, helped cement the sci-fi legacies of both Aliens and the Predator, gave Jurassic Park its non-CGI giants, and provided Edward with his scissor-hands. On the Mount Rushmore of movie magicians, he’s right up there with Smith, Harryhausen, Baker, and Bottin. And now his name is added to another, less celebrated list - those who died too young, and far too vital.


Having suffered from multiple myeloma for years, he finally succumbed to the disease on 15 June. For many, it was a total shock. Winston was not open about his health, though many in the industry did know he was battling the incurable illness. He continued to work, contributing important elements to this Summer’s Iron Man, while planning for several other projects. The best way to describe Winston’s work is ‘bio-mechanical’. While other make-up wizards found ways to imitate life, his creations took on the elements of existence, found their core of truth, and then turned them epic.


Born in Virginia, the young Winston loved anything artistic. He excelled at drawing, and enjoyed creating puppet shows for his friends. After graduating from the University of Virginia in 1968 (where he studied painting and sculpture), he headed to Hollywood, looking for work as an actor. When jobs became sparse, he signed up to apprentice in Disney’s make-up department. Three years later, he opened his own company, Stan Winston Studios, and in rapid fire succession, won an Emmy for his work on Gargoyles (1973) and The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman (which he shared with future icon Rick Baker).


Throughout the ‘70s, Winston built a substantial resume, high profile gigs as part of the production team on Roots, The Wiz, and Dead and Buried shoring up his already hefty credits. But it was the Andy Kaufman comedy Heartbeeps which brought the wizard his first Oscar buzz. Nominated for the uneven robot romp, he gained the notice of newcomer James Cameron. The directing novice was hoping Winston could create the metal machine man-assassin at the center of his radical time travel action film. The results were The Terminator, the movie that would make myths out of Winston, Cameron, and leading man (and former bodybuilder) Arnold Schwarzenegger.


After his work on the 1984 sleeper, the sky literally became the limit. Winston worked on Cameron’s update of the Aliens franchise, earned another Oscar nod for Predator, reinvented the classic Universal creatures for the cult favorite The Monster Squad, and added his touch to such marginal efforts as Leviathan, Congo, and The Relic. But it was his work on Edward Scissorhands and Terminator 2 that gained the most favor. He was acknowledged by the Academy for both (winning two statues for the latter) and it soon seemed like every horror, science fiction, or fantasy film was using Winston (or one of his many protégés) as part of their production.


Like all successful artists, he tried to branch out. He directed two feature films (the minor masterwork Pumpkinhead, and the fair family film A Gnome named Gnorm) and as a producer, he guided Wrong Turn and The Deaths of Ian Stone (among others) to the big screen. But his main passion remained make-up and special effects. Even when Jurassic Park threatened to wipe out the practical side of things with its computer generated progress, Winston found a way to make his kind of input invaluable. It was a methodology that would carry him across the next two decades.


Aliens and Terminator 2: Judgment Day are arguably his main masterpieces, films that could no exist without what Winston brought to them. It may seem hard to believe now, but everything in Cameron’s sequel to Ridley Scott’s haunted house in space was done practically. Puppets, rod animation, animatronics, costumes, and miniatures were utilized to bring this ultimate battle between man and extraterrestrial to life. More impressively, when CGI started to show promise, Winston proved it could be seamlessly integrated into the standard F/X catalog. It’s a lesson that few in the current realm of film false reality understand. 


In addition, Winston was a great teacher, and loved to interact with fans. He was always personable and generous at conventions, and contributed all he could when DVD gave technicians a chance to champion their craft. His loss is monumental for many reasons, and not just for the work we genre fanatics lose in the process. As science sweeps all the old school trades toward the trash bin, Winston reminded us of why the classical approach was, oft times, the best. He made changes work for him, never giving up or into the prevailing cultural conclusion. He was never one to quit, which helps explain how he battled cancer for so long. It also makes his passing that much sadder.


Indeed, what we lose when we lose someone like Stan Winston is an artform benchmark, something professionals envy while simultaneously striving for. With each master that passes away, a little less reality remains and another chapter in history is written. Winston’s death means that, maybe, one less excited teen decides to take up make-up instead of majoring in business, or one less filmmaker hires a practical artist and, instead, drops his dreams into someone’s overpriced laptop. While cinema has to go on without one of its giants, there is a larger issue involved.


Stan Winston was one of the few F/X regents in a realm where vitality meant viability. Now that he’s gone, it’s up to those he inspired to carry his spirit forward. It would be the best tribute of all to a man who reveled in realizing dreams. Thanks to him, our heroes are a little more gallant, our villains far more vile…and our movies a lot more magical.


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Tuesday, Jun 17, 2008

A staple of American storytelling is the “road picture”. Characters load up the slave ship, the stagecoach, the car or the spaceship, and head out into the distant, unspoken horizon, with unresolved and unspoken issues packed into an emotional canteen like one of those fake peanut cans, waiting for some poor sucker to peel the lid back. And when that lid blows, the devastation leaves three lifetimes of self-imposed emotional imprisonment covered in permanent debris.


The Silk Road Theater production of writer Julia Cho’s Durango is the cross-pollination of a road picture and the dysfunctional tinderbox of American “familia”, waiting for that lit match that will set its eternally captive participants hurtling towards a new “normal”. How that family exists will never be the same.


“Durango” (Colorado, that is) unknowingly awaits the arrival of Boo-Seng Lee, and his two sons; high school swimming team champ Jimmy, and prospective medical school student Isaac. Boo Seng finds himself forced out of his job of 20 years. Was it his nearing the end of his middle years; his Korean ancestry preventing his “fitting in”; his following “the company rules” to a fault? Whatever the reason, he can’t articulate his shock and frustration in real time company separation, so he chooses to add one more secret to his life portfolio and browbeats his sons into taking a family trip. Eldest-son Isaac can smell the disaster wafting from the travel pamphlet his father clutches in-hand, as youngest-son Jimmy openly relishes the first “real family outing” that he’s always wished for, believing this will be an opportunity for the three to bond before Isaac heads off to medical school in the Fall.


The closet doors blow open, but few secrets walk out, as each character works diligently to hide the secrets and lies not only from one another, but also from themselves. Eminent and distant matters of sexuality, race, and manhood are purposefully and thankfully avoided as frank discussion amongst the three, but nevertheless imposing and influential on the minutest of their individual life’s decision. Shame and the fear of being ostracized by the others are the nails that keep the lid on the family tinderbox and insure there may never be a completed circle. When a few truths slip through the cracks, we see a family work in unison to restore the uncomfortable order that they’ve been used to, handily accepting the eternal distance as the consequence of family order and obligation.


Durango is not a quintessentially “Asian” piece. It’s not a period piece set in a distant land acted out by characters that are now long dead. It’s about three men of Korean extraction mushing through their lives in the new west Carlos Murillo’s provides a stripped bare nowhere to run but inward that fully compliments Marianna Czasaszar’s minimalist set design. Durango is a story of Asian-Americans in America, and reminds us that no matter how American we may believe ourselves to be—somewhere in the back of our mind’s eye, our life’s decisions (from the small and benign to those that will determine our life’s course) are made based on who our ancestors were, where we came from, expectations and perceived obligations. 


A reminder that some of us are forever tethered to “what” we are before “who” we are and what we need to become.


Durango ran May 1 – June 15, 2008. Chicago Temple, First United Methodist Church Pierce Hall, 77 W. Washington.


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Tuesday, Jun 17, 2008

Looks like Rupert Murdoch’s got a little to sweat about besides maybe not having the GOP stay in power next year.  According to Tech Crunch, Facebook is now catching up to MySpace in terms of the number of unique visitors (aka web users) coming to its site.  What that means is that FB isn’t the underdog anymore and now, maybe more than ever, is a potent force not just in online social networking but increasingly, it’s becoming a place for music heads to congregate, which its connections to Last.fm, Imeem, iLike and other music-related widgets that are popping up all the time.  That means not just more ad dough but also developers, fans and bands might be flocking to them more and making them more of a king-maker in the entertainment world.


Then there’s the fan-friendly guys of Metallica who have laid off demanding that web users get sued and are now somewhat more fan-friendly to blogs.  A recent scuffle occurred when some blogs were told to take down reviews of the metal-heads upcoming album.  Mind you, these were not negative reviews either.  Lars and friends decided that this was bad PR (which they know all too well) so they blamed their management and were gracious enough to let the blogs put out their nice reviews of the band.  It was definitely a boneheaded move to begin with and by using management as a scapegoat, if that’s the case, makes the band look better and actually heroic in stopping this madness.  That would be the story line if you weren’t a skeptic like I am.  Part of what makes me cynical is this tidbit at the start of their press release: ‘... rarely do we feel the desire/need to respond to the “blogosphere”’  Boy, that drips with contempt, doesn’t it?  Sounds like they think the blogs are a bunch of stupid bozos who they shouldn’t take seriously.  Kind of like the people who wouldn’t want them posting about the band in the first place…


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Tuesday, Jun 17, 2008

Via Will Wilkinson comes a link to this Reason piece about fertility fears by Kerry Howley. The upshot: social conservatives love to use demographic fears to try to roll back feminist advances, though any pragmatic effort to reverse low birth rates typically involves implementing the sort of social welfare programs that are anathema to conservatives.


Practically speaking, on the policy level, demographic panic is only useful for one purpose: the promotion of social welfare programs many social conservatives would oppose. From France to Poland to Singapore, governments are responding to low fertility with policies social democrats have always favored. Almost any aspect of the welfare state can be construed as encouraging procreation; more to the point, low fertility can be blamed on the lack of any particular social welfare program. A dearth of pregnancies is evidence that protections for workers are too few, social welfare allowances too small, public school days too short, mandated maternity leave too limited. Women want to fulfill their natural roles as mothers, goes the assumption, but dog-eat-dog capitalism stands in the way.



Howley points out that demographic fears are often stirred by xenophobia (a low birth rate is akin to “race suicide,” as Theodore Roosevelt termed it), which is then leveraged against women, who are forced back into traditional, limited domestic roles (though this does nothing to increase fertility), nicely knitting racism and sexism together.


Periods of anxiety over “race suicide” are rarely good times for women. Protestants who were worried about the rising tide of foreign Catholics passed anti-abortion laws in the 1880s that endured until 1973, when Roe v. Wade limited their scope. Embracing historical continuity with the nativists who came before him, Mark Steyn takes time in America Alone to blame women for aborting the generation that might have stood between us and the coming Islamification of the West. It’s not surprising at all that the single greatest social anxiety of our time has been reduced to crude demographic projections that pin the blame on empty wombs.


Like concerns about abortion, concerns about fertility rates ultimately come down to checking feminism and restricting women’s ability to control their own lives. Instead, their wombs are presumed to be owned by society collectively, and politically administered by the state.


Howley’s conclusion explores how this sort of sexism is buttressed by nationalism.


At the heart of any fertility incentive lies an attempt to encourage a particular group of women to orient their bodies in a traditional way. Every pro-fertility policy is an effort to slow cultural transformation, to stabilize a society’s ethnic composition, to ossify a current conception of a national culture by freezing the genetic makeup of a nation. From Poland to Singapore, swollen wombs are a bulwark against change.
There is a reason we speak of “Mother Russia” and “Mother India.” Feminist sociologists such as Nira Yuval-Davis refer to women as the “boundary markers” of a state or society. While men may leave, fight, and be compromised, women represent purity and continuity. Yuval-Davis points out in her book Gender and Nation that the Hitler Youth Movement had different mottos for girls and boys. The boys’ motto was: “Live faithfully; fight bravely; die laughing.” For girls: “Be faithful; be pure; be German.” Girls simply had to be. They were the collective.
In times of great social anxiety, we see new calls for women to return to home and hearth—calls alternately cast as a return to tradition and as a progressive leap forward, but efforts, nonetheless, to enlist women in a national project while defining the boundaries of national inclusion. Depopulation is not a given, but ideologically fraught and scientifically questionable debates about gender, race, and culture will be with us no matter which way the population swings.


Depopulation is basically a stalking horse for deeper problems, which appear to be inextricably bound with one another. A reminder that one can’t attempt to remedy sexism without at the same time tackling other forms of bigotry.


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