Apple

iSuck

Monolith of consumer excessMan, there’s been a nauseating level of hype around the iPhone today. (I didn’t include a link; if you want to read more about the iPhone, just check the entire internet). And all for what?

It’s version 1.0 of an Apple device, which means that in around six months there’ll be the next “next big thing” that makes the previous version look like Soviet-era technology. It uses last year’s cellular technology, and by even the most glowing accounts has painfully slow internet access.

There’s no support for third-party development on it; Apple wants to squeeze every last penny it can get out of customers via the iTunes store, and they chose to insult developers by calling their lack of development support “sweet.”

It doesn’t have GPS like other mobile devices do. The camera has no video and no zoom, both of which are supported on my years-old RAZR phone.

I use my phone maybe three times a week, max. Most days I even forget to bring it with me. I don’t have any need for a new one.

Plus Apple’s craftsmanship has been going downhill for a while; broken latches and recalled batteries on the laptops, scratches and battery problems on the iPods, and an OS that seems to be getting less stable as time goes by. My iPod, which is only a few years old (which means there’ve been at least 8 newer versions since I got it) is already giving up the ghost — the battery runs out quickly and at times it refuses to boot up.

Apple’s products are status symbols for a segment of society obsessed with excessive consumerism, a demographic that’s become more and more repulsive the farther we get from the late 1990s. It’s the territory of four-eyed, goateed dorks who think they’re hipsters, driving Volkswagens and listening to the Dave Matthews Band and Jack Johnson and Sheryl Crow on their iPods while still denying they’re yuppies.

All that, not to mention the fact that it’s ridiculous to pay six hundred dollars for a damn cell phone.

Which is why I got the 4GB version instead of the 8GB.

Seriously, you’ve got to see the screen on this thing. You know when they have demo models of PDAs and phones in electronics stores, how they have those printed mock-ups of the real display pasted on the front? The iPhone’s real screen looks like that. I picked one up in the store just to get an idea of the size of it, and was actually surprised when the image on the screen moved.

During my dinner break at work, I stopped by the nearest AT&T store in San Rafael, thinking that few people knew it was even there, so it wouldn’t be crowded. When I got there, there were already around 60 people in line. I joined in for about an hour, and the people were friendly, and the weather was perfect, and I could finally understand why there’s so much hype about waiting in line for the new cell phone or videogame console or Harry Potter book — it’s not even about the product so much about the “event.”

Anyway, that turned out to be a bust, as they sold out after I’d been in line for a little over an hour. I figured I’d had a small taste of the big Day 1 Excitement, so I went back to work and said I’d order one online.

I’m not sure who was driving to the Apple store after I left work; it sure wasn’t me. But the creepily friendly staff standing outside the doors welcomed me and assured me that there were still 4GB models left, and I jumped all over it like Michael Moore on a corndog. I don’t have kids, so it’s not like I need to carry a ton of pictures around with me. And I can’t even think of 1000 songs I’d want to listen to at a moment’s notice. So this, plus the fact that there’s going to be at least a dozen better models released before my contract even runs out, I actually saved money!

And the gadget bloodlust is finally quiet. But for how long?

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Personal

Thirty-Six

For that hard-to-color hair of the aged and infirmThey say the only thing worse than having a thirty-sixth birthday is not having a thirty-sixth birthday. I say the only thing worse is having a thirty-sixth birthday on a Wednesday. Nothing like having the long, slow march towards death kick off on the most boring day of the week.

If I could comically throw my back out, or get asked if I want the AARP discount at a restaurant, that would at least make growing past middle age interesting. (I smoke, so 70 is likely my limit). Instead, the day just ticks over like any other one, showing how it’s all dull and inevitable. And at midnight I got a dozen happy birthday e-mail messages from message boards I signed up for years ago and forgot about, which is like hearing ghostly pre-recorded radio broadcasts after an apocalypse.

Because I’m a shameless Apple whore, I’ve been watching all the iPhone videos. They’re hosted by a vaguely eerie man in a black turtleneck on a black background, making awkward hand motions as if he were doing a grotesque impersonation of real human movement. Assuming he’s not an alien, I would have thought of him as my elder. The type of guy I’d instinctively call “sir.” If I were at a big company, he’d clearly be my boss — not the owner, but someone who’d been around long enough to be in middle management. He probably owns a house in the South Bay, drives his Passat to the Apple campus every day, comes home to a house with at least two iPhoto-ready children.

In the video about activation, he has to enter his birthdate to register his phone, and he claims he’s three years younger than me.

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Apple, The Internet

A big-ass table

This video from SarcasticGamer.com has already made the rounds in the real blogs, but it’s just too well-done not to pass on:

You don’t have to have seen the original promotional video to be able to tell that they got the music and the intonation of the voice exactly right. Brilliant.

And to prove this blog’s total lack of bias (in addition to its total lack of content), here’s my other favorite parody of the moment:

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Movies

Mickey Shrugged

Photo from Sprachcaffe InternationalThis week Mac got me into a preview screening of Ratatouille. It’s really an outstanding movie.

It’s gotten to where you just expect the highest level of quality from Pixar movies, and Ratatouille exceeds that. At the technical level, of course, it’s perfect — Pixar movies always have much, much more going on behind the scenes than is immediately apparent, and the effects always serve the story. There are hairy characters that don’t really need to have every hair individually simulated, and segments that don’t really have to be set underwater with accurate water caustics and bubbles and realistic movement, but they do it just because they can.

That’s the case here, but still the effects work stands out: in Ratatouille, I was most impressed with the 2D animation. There are several scenes where book illustrations and billboards come to life and begin speaking, and the movement and lighting and coloration are perfect; they really do look like paintings brought to life, and make the surrounding three-dimensional characters seem even more realistic.

The animation is perfect throughout, which is remarkable considering I don’t really like the character design for any of the non-rat characters. They’re all fairly off-putting, with grotesquely exaggerated features and a skin texture that makes them look like PVC figures. (But still nowhere near as unappealing as Dreamworks characters). But that’s just a personal preference, and even I quickly forgot it because the characters all move completely convincingly.

It’s full of laugh-out-loud moments, and like all the best animation, many of those come from small details. Just the shape of the food critic Anton Ego’s writing room, and the image of his typewriter, were enough to get a laugh.

And it’s got my single favorite scene in any Pixar movie to date. It would’ve been a great movie without it, but that one scene in particular — when Ego first tastes the ratatouille — was just so brilliantly done, it knocked it completely out of the park.

So Ratatouille gets my unqualified recommendation: go see it as soon as you’re able.

But…

I’ve got to mention the problem that kept distracting me throughout the movie. It was the same unsettling undertone that caused me to feel ultimately ambivalent about The Incredibles. (And for the record, I liked Ratatouille much more than The Incredibles, which is doubly surprising because the latter has superheroes and retro-future homes and a Bondian supervillians lair and fight scenes and explosions, while the former is about cartoon rats and French cooking).

What bugged me about The Incredibles was the sense of Objectivist preachiness that kept slipping in. The “Be true to yourself” message has been a staple of Disney movies for decades, but it’s usually of the innocuous (and vapid) “Follow your dream!” variety. I thought The Incredibles pounded home the darker variety, saying “I am an exceptional person and I deserve to be treated as such!”

The subtle aspects didn’t bother me — naming the characters “Parr,” setting Mr. Incredible up with a desk job — but when they veered into speeches — Mr. Incredible’s browbeating by his tiny middle-manager boss, and Dash’s browbeating by his nerdy teacher and the lecture about “just fitting in”, and especially the villain’s final speech — it just seemed like the screenwriter had some baggage he wanted to get rid of.

Ratatouille isn’t anywhere near as glaring — if you weren’t bothered by the parts I mentioned in The Incredibles, you probably won’t notice it at all in Ratatouille. But there are still a couple of moments of speechifying. Remy makes a speech to his dad about “moving forward” that seems more petulant than affirming. A book mentioned throughout the movie is called “Anyone Can Cook;” but ultimately, we’re reminded that anyone can try, but very few are going to be good at it. And even more blatant, the food critic begins his final review with a completely out-of-left-field dissertation about how critics are worthless and produce nothing of value, doing nothing but bringing down the ones truly capable of greatness.

Now, I’m willing to admit I’m sensitive when the topic of Objectivism comes up; it’s a completely alien and repugnant philosophy to me, and somehow I ended up with roommates all throughout college who were hard-line devotees of Ayn Rand. (Edited because that sounded overly harsh: they were perfectly fine people on every level; I just completely disagree with their philosophy.) So I could be reading more into it than what’s there.

But then I see stuff like this featurette about how Brad Bird is the Messiah, and I just feel kind of nauseated afterwards. One of the cardinal rules of filmmaking is supposed to be “show, don’t tell.” Bird has shown us three times over, with The Iron Giant, The Incredibles, and now Ratatouille, that he’s an exceptionally talented filmmaker, capable of making astounding movies that genuinely raise the bar for everything that follows. So I’d just ask that he stop reminding us of that.

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Television

Schrödinger's Capo

Well, that didn’t last. One week and seven episodes after I started watching The Sopranos, I found out how it ended. The culprit was Ron Moore’s “Battlestar Galactica” blog, of all things. Technically, it got ruined much earlier, several times over; I just hadn’t realized that when Yahoo News changed their big headline from “Will Tony Soprano get whacked?!?” to “Did Tony Soprano get whacked?!?”, they weren’t being coy.

Of course, I can’t really evaluate the finale, because I haven’t actually seen it. And even if I watched it right now, it wouldn’t count — I’ve only got seven episodes invested in the series, instead of seven seasons. But I was already going to make a comment about the ones I’d just watched, and it’s interesting how much of my opinion of those episodes seems to apply to the finale as well.

By the time the end credits rolled on “College”, I was left thinking I’d just seen one of the best hours of television ever made. For those who don’t automatically remember TV episodes that aired eight years ago by title alone: it’s the one where Tony takes his daughter to Maine to look at colleges and happens to run into a mob informant; meanwhile back at home, Carmella spends the night with her friend the priest after they have a sexy, sexy communion. The things I liked best about this episode and the ones immediately following:

They’re not about plot. Stuff happens, but what happens isn’t as important as why it happens and how the characters react to it.

There are no sudden life-changing epiphanies. After Tony has his final meeting with the mob snitch, there’s a moment where he stands in a field, looking up as a flock of ducks — like the ones that started his anxiety attacks — fly overhead. Meanwhile, Carmella breaks down with guilt and has to confess her complicity in Tony’s crimes. Does Tony recognize the symbolism of the ducks? Not really; he just sees them. Does Carmella forsake her mob money and move out? Not yet; she wakes up and reads a newspaper.

But this isn’t the frustrating artificial gimmick typical of episodic TV, where everything resets back to the default state at the end of each hour. And it’s not the equally artificial gimmick of the current crop of story-arc-based series, where each hour has to have some life-changing event that keeps escalating the tension. Instead, it’s more like reality. Real people are resistant to change. They have moments that chip away at their world-view, leaving them subtly altered.

You never know what’s really happening. There’s a great dynamic going on throughout the series. We’re constantly led to believe we’ve got an omniscient view of Tony’s story, and then constantly jarred out of that, shown that we don’t have any idea what’s going on. We see Tony’s dreams, and his sessions at the therapist, which should be a direct insight into the character’s mind.

But dream sequences inherently put the audience on edge; after the first one, you’re never sure what you’re being shown is real. And his sessions with Dr. Melfi are filled with lies; the scene will start with him talking about something that directly contradicts what we saw in the previous scene. If he’s lying to the therapist about his mistress, what else is he lying about? Can you trust anything he says? It all works together to build the sense that no matter how much time you spend with somebody and how deeply you dig, there’s an impenetrable wall at the end of it. We can never really know what’s going on with Tony Soprano. We’re not even sure if he knows what’s really going on.

The series gets more mileage out of what’s left unsaid than what’s actually said. This is supposedly one of the prime directives of screenwriting, but you so rarely see it done well. In the “College” episode, they had the stones to attempt it on two fronts: Carmella and the priest (after watching The Remains of the Day one of the few movies that does do it well), and Tony and his daughter.

The scenes with Tony and Meadow in the car are just amazing, because so much happens with so little said. All through the episode, you’ve had the sense that they’re bonding, and it’s all felt genuine, and it’s all felt reassuring. It’s as if a great pressure that’s been building up over the past few episodes, has been suddenly released. But then, with just a few lines of dialogue and increasingly lengthy silences, she learns that there’s still a wall between them, some things that he’ll just never tell her.

And because of a couple of great performances, there’s more to that scene than the obvious. It’s not a simple case that he wants to tell her what he’s been doing, but can’t. It never even occurs to him to tell her; lying to his family has become so natural at this point, that it’s simply instinctual for him to keep his work and family completely separate. It’s not even the case that he feels guilty for what he’s done, or wants to keep her from feeling ashamed of him; if there is any of that, it’s all subconscious.

And as soon as he starts evading her questions, she starts responding to him with a simple “Nothing.” And again because of a great, subtle performance, you can detect what’s on the surface — she’s angry that he won’t come clean with her, so she keeps quiet as revenge — and also what’s underneath, her disappointment that the bonding they’ve had is over, and her realization that she’ll probably never be as close to her father as she wanted. It was a perfectly understated, realistic, and ultimately sad scene.

So, disregarding the irony of writing four paragraphs in praise of a show that works best when leaving things unsaid: at least based on the few episodes of the series I’ve seen so far, I’d say the finale sounds about right. The Sopranos doesn’t seem to be about resolutions, or realizations, or big life-changing events. It’s about normalcy, the realization that big finales and conclusions don’t typically happen in real life. It sounds like the best way for the series to end is simply not to.

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