Thursday, 2 August 2007

Simpsonised

After three days worth of obituaries, I thought I should probably make a post that is just plain fun. For that reason I decided to get myself and various significant others Simposnised. For those of you who don't know what I am talking about, Simpsonize Me is both a website and a Burger King/The Simpsons Movie promotion whereby people can upload a photo of themselves and have it transformed into the likeness they would bear in The Simpsons universe.

Like most huge Simpsons fans (although I think the show has gone downhill for the past many years), I have always been curious about what I would look like in The Simpsons universe. For that reason I just had to try Simpsonize Me. Here I have to offer some words of advice. First, it does take several minutes for the site to Simpsonise one. I have a cable connection and the process takes anywhere from five to ten minutes. I am not sure that I would even try the website if all I had was dial up. Second, one should make sure that the photo upload is high quality and in colour. It should have a good deal of contrast and very little in the way of blurring. Simpsonize Me can handle somewhat blurry photos, but it takes a bit longer (my picture took only about three minutes--my brother's took about ten). Third, Simpsonize Me is a very busy web site. I would recommend waiting until late at night to use it if you're pressed for time. With as much traffic as it gets, one might not be able to get in for several minutes during the busiest parts of the day (say, the morning).

Anyhow, I suppose I will have to post the results of both my Simpsonisation and those of some of my significant others. First up is a headshot of myself Simpsonised. I have to say it is a good likeness:

This second picture is one of my cat and myself outside the Kwik-E-Mart. I am guessing I had to make a trip to Springfield, as Huntsville as only one convenience store and it's not a Kwik-E-Mart (it's a boring, old Casey's).


Next is a headshot of my brother Simpsonised (notice the family resemblance?). Observe the fact that even though he is younger than me, his hair is already grey while mine is still brown...

Next is a shot of my brother at the nuclear power plant. No idea what he is doing there. Maybe he and his cat had business with Mr. Burns...



Next is picture of my nephew at about one year of age. I think he resembles my brother, although he has the darkest hair of any of us...


The next picture is of Ozzy and his dog on the set of his favourite TV show.



Finally, here is a headshot of my second best friend Simpsonised. I personally think she is a good deal more attractive in real life, but then every woman in The Simpsons universe seems to be none too attractive (Erin Esurance they ain't):


And here she is outside the studios where they make those "Itchy and Scratchy" cartoons. I figure she must work in customer service there. By the way, she doesn't usually wear dresses in real life (she's a blue jeans girl), but I thought her Simposnised version looked better in one.



I would have Simpsonised more of my significant others, but my best friend has an aversion to having his picture taken and the only pictures I have of my sis are from thirty years ago. Anyway, Simpsonize Me is a fun time waster. And very enjoyable if you've ever wondered what you would look like in The Simpsons universe.

Wednesday, 1 August 2007

More Eulogies

The past several days has seen the passing of several important figures. Indeed, Monday saw the passing of two of the greatest directors of all time (Ingmar Bergman and Michelangelo Antonioni). Beyond these two giants of directing there were three other important figures in their own respective fields: cinematographer Laszlo Kovacs, actor Michel Serrault, and television personality Tom Snyder.

Laszlo Kovacs passed on July 22, at the age of 74. He is perhaps best known for his work on the classic films Easy Rider and Five Easy Pieces.

Kovacs was born May 14, 1933 in Cece, Hungary. He studied at the State Academy of Drama and Film in Budapest. In 1956 Kovacs and fellow student Vilmos Zsigmond (later the cinematographer on such films as Close Encounters of the Third Kind and The Deer Hunter) filmed the Hungarian Revolution as it took place. That same year they smuggled their work out to Austria. In March 1957 they arrived in the United States with the intention of selling their footage, but the Hungarian Revolution was considered old news. It did eventually air in 1961 in a CBS documentary.

Kovacs worked various odd jobs until 1964 when he finally broke into motion pictures. He was a cameraman on the low budget comedy What's Up Front that year. That same year he would work as a cameraman on the American International Pictures movie The Time Travelers. It was also in 1964 that he first worked as a cinematographer. on National Geographic TV specials and the low budget cult film The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies. In the Sixties Kovacs worked primarily on low budget movies, some of them (such as Psych Out and The Savage Seven) for American International Pictures. Perhaps his most notable film of this period was the classic Peter Bogdanovich thriller (and Boris Karloff's last notable role) Targets.

It was 1969 that Kovacs received his big break on a low budget, independent picture named Easy Rider. Dennis Hopper had approached Kovacs about the movie, but initially he turned him down. It was Hopper's persistence that resulted in Kovacs being the cinematographer on the film. Following Easy Rider Kovacs would work on a few more low budget films before receiving even greater notoriety for the cinematography on Bob Rafelson's Five Easy Pieces. He would also work on Rafelson's King of Marvin Gardens. From the Seventies into the Nineties Kovacs would work on several notable films including Paper Moon, What's Up Doc, Shampoo, Close Encounters of the Third Kind (on which he was the additional cinematographer), and New York, New York.

Kovacs's gift as a cinematographer was simply spontaneity. It was mostly in evidence in Easy Rider, and the films he made for Bob Rafelson and Peter Bogdonovich. Indeed, for Easy Rider he hit upon the idea of using a Chevrolet convertible as his camera car, the stand for his camera being a piece of plywood held in place by a sandbag in the trunk. It was Kovacs who found the place where they would shoot the scene in which Jack Nicholson's character orders a chicken sandwich without the chicken in Five Easy Pieces. The cast and crew had no idea where to shoot the scene when Kovacs noticed a small cafe. It was Kovacs inventiveness and spontaneity that made him a great cinematographer. In fact, his best work seemed to be on low budget and independent movies where a cinematographer might be expected to improvise.

French actor and veteran of over 150 films Michel Serrault passed this Sunday at the age of 79 from cancer. He was born January 24, 1928 in Brunoy, France. Initially entering a seminary to become a Catholic priest, he left because of the vow of chastity. He went onto study acting in Paris and started appearing in cabarets. He made his film debut in Ah! Les belles bacchantes (released as Peek-a-boo in the United States) and appeared in Les Diaboliques in 1955. He worked throughout the Sixties in films such as Candide ou l'optimisme au XXe siecle and Bebert et l'omnibus. His big break would come in 1972 with Le Viager, but t would be the hit La cage aux folles that would bring him international attention, playing the extravagant gay nightclub owner Albin Mougeotte. Including the movie's sequels, he would go onto appear in such films as Docteur Petiot, Room Service, and Le Fantomes du chapelier (The Hatter's Ghost.

In any language Michel Serrault was a gifted actor. He was particularly adept at comedy, able to play the most outrageous characters with perfect timing. At the same time, however, he was versatile enough to play the ruthless killer, Doctor Petiot, convincingly. He was definitely one of the best French actors of his time.

American television personality Tom Snyder died Monday at the age of 71 after a long battle with leukaemia.

Snyder was born on May 12, 1936 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. He attended Marquette University High School there and then Marquette University. He started out as a radio reporter at Milwaukee's radio station WRIT-AM in the Sixties. He later worked at the radio station WSAV in Savannah, Georgia. By the Seventies he moved into television serving as a news anchor at KYW-TV in Philadelphia, WNBC-TV and WABC-TV in New York City and KNBC-TV in Los Angeles. In 1973 Snyder was tapped to host NBC's Tomorrow, a show which aired following The Tonight Show from 1973 to 1982. It was a talk show like no other. Snyder might follow up a hard hitting question with a personal observation. In many respects his interviews played out more like conversations. In between interviews he would often joke around with the show's crew, while still on camera. His interviews were often simply one on one. Over the years Snyder had several notable interviews, including John Lennon's final televised interview in 1975, the first interview with a former KISS member without his makeup (Peter Criss), Harlan Ellison, and David Brenner. Perhaps the most notorious person he ever interviewed was Charles Manson in 1981. Unfortunately, NBC decided that they had to turn Tommorow into a more conventional talk show, renaming it Tomorrow Coast to Coast. They added a live audience and gossip columnist Rona Barrett as a co-host. The end result of all this was the cancellation of the show in 1982.

After Tomorrow, Snyder returned to being a news anchor, this time at WABC-TV in New York. He returned to a talk show format in 1985 at KABC-TV in Los Angeles. The talk show was about to enter national syndication when it was over taken by The Oprah Winfrey Show. Snyder then returned to radio with his own talk show on the ABC network. Following the demise of his radio talk show, he went to work for CNBC in 1992. It was in 1995 that Snyder would return to a national television network. David Letterman, who had long acknowledged Snyder as one of influences, hired him to host the first version of The Late, Late Show. Snyder lasted as the host of The Late, Late Show until 1999.

Being in school at the time, I only vaguely remember Tom Snyder's stint as host of Tomorrow, but I remember him as the first host of The Late Late Show well. What made Tom Snyder's interviews enjoyable is that they unfolded like a conversation. There were no bells and whistles. No routines. Just talk. I've no doubt that Snyder's casual demeanour put many guests at ease. After many nights spent watching The Late, Late Show, I have to say that I am very saddened by his passing.

Tuesday, 31 July 2007

Michelangelo Antonioni R.I.P.

I was going to eulogise Laszlo Kovacs, Michel Serrault, and Tom Snyder today, but it seems that yesterday the world lost not one, but two legendary directors. One was Ingmar Bergman. The other was Michelangelo Antonioni, the man who directed such classics as Blowup and L'Avventura. He died yesterday at age 94 in Rome.

Like Bergman, Antonioni had an enormous impact on film. He was best known for his manipulation of film narrative. The perfect example of this is his masterpiece Blowup. Unlike most movies then and now, Blowup is not the least bit linear in structure. Events in the film may, on the surface, seem unrelated. And the film lacks anything in the way of a conventional ending. Antionioni was also a master of the camera, and he used it in ways previous directors probably never considered. Indeed, Antonioni often depended more on imagery than dialogue to communicate what he meant. And even then, what the viewer saw was often open to interpretation. That Antonioni's narratives were always non-traditional and that he used the camera in such a way as to allow the viewer to come to his own conclusions about what he seeing should come as no surprise. His films centred around alienation, isolation, and incompleteness, so his use of narrative and camera work suited his films perfectly. He was quite possibly the first modernist director.

Michelangelo Antonioni was born in Ferrara, Italy on September 29, 1912. He attended the University of Bologna where he majored in business and economics. After graduation he worked at a bank for a time before becoming a film critic for the newspaper Il Corriere Padano in Ferrara. He worked there for five years before getting hired for the official Fascist film magazine Cinema. Not surprisingly, he was fired after only a few months. Antonioni then enrolled in the Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia where he studied film. By 1942 he wrote his first screenplay, Un Pilota ritorna (The Pilot Returns), directed by Roberto Rossellini. In 1943 he directed his first film, a documentary short entitled Gente del Po (People of the Po Valley). For the next several years Antonioni was both a screen writer and a maker of often neo-realist documentary shorts.

Despite having worked for years in documentary film making, Antonioni's first feature film, Cronaca di un amore (Chronicle of Love), was a middle class crime drama dealing with alienation. By 1955 Antonioni was getting attention for his films. His movie Le Amiche (The Girlfriends) won the Silver Lion at the Venice Film Festival. It was in 1960 that the film which would make him a legend was released. L'Avventura, blend of crime drama, mystery, and romance, took the Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival and the Sutherland Trophy at the London Film Festival. For the next several years Antonioni would do some of his best work: La Notte (a rather dark drama) in 1961, L'Eclisse (a rather tragic love story) in 1962), Il Deserto Rosso in 1964, and Blowup in 1966. Arguably, it was Blowup that was his masterpiece. The film won the Palm d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival and a slough of other awards. The film focused on a photographer in Swinging London who, among other things, believes his photographed a murder after developing some negatives. Beyond being the best expression of Antonioni's modernism and neo-realism, it may well have captured Swinging London better than any other filmmaker, even those born in Britain.

Antonioni never matched Blowup, although he came close in 1982 with Professione: reporter (better known as The Passenger in the English speaking world). Like Blowup, The Passenger was not one single thing--it was a drama, a mystery, a thriller, and a road movie all rolled into one. Sadly, Antonioni would only make two more feature films: Identificazione di una donna in 1982 and Al di la delle nuvole (co-directed with Wim Wenders) in 1995. Antonioni returned to directing documentary shorts, as he had done in the beginning. His last work was a segment of the anthology film Eros in 2004.

Antonioni was a director whose work was hated nearly as often as it was loved. The fact that most of his films focused on alienation and isolation, that his narratives often lacked a traditional ending, his spare yet masterful use of the camera, may have made him an acquired taste for many. Regardless, Antonioni would have a huge impact on art films, particularly in the wake of Blowup (indeed, there was a point in the late Sixties when every art film seemed to look like Blowup. He would also have a huge impact on modern Italian cinema, surpassed only by Fellini. Antonioni would have a powerful influence on young directors such as Martin Scorsese, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Mike Nichols, and Quention Tarentino. A man who defined film isolation and angst in the Sixties, he was a true pioneer.

Monday, 30 July 2007

Ingmar Bergman 1918-2007

Antonius Block: "Nothing escapes you!"
Death: "Nothing escapes me. No one escapes me."
(from Det sjunde inseglet by Ingmar Bergman)

"All our times have come
Here but now they're gone
Seasons don't fear the reaper
Nor do the wind, the sun or the rain
We can be like they are..."
("Don't Fear the Reaper," by Buck Dharma, originally performed by Blue Oyster Cult)

Recently legendary cinematographer Laszlo Kovacs died. Yesterday French actor Michel Serrault died. Today talk show pioneer Tom Snyder died. Sadly, I will have to wait to eulogise them, as today a man died whose influence extends farther than even these towering figures in their respective fields. Quite simply, Swedish director Ingmar Bergman died today at the age of 89 in Faro, Sweden.

Bergman was born on July 14, 1918 in Uppsala, Sweden (fittingly enough, the spiritual capital of Sweden in the Viking Age). His father, Erik, was a Lutheran minister of Danish descent. His upbringing was rather strict, and he grew up in a religious atmosphere that would later inform his films. He attended Palmgrens School in Stockholm. It was while he was attending Stockholm University that he became interested in film. It was in 1943 that he joined Svensk Filmindustri as a screenwriter. From the beginning Bergman also worked on the stage. He was director of Helsingborg City Theatre in 1944. It was also that year that the first film to ever bear a credit for Bergman was released; Hets was written by him. Two years later would see the release of the first film directed by Bergman, Kris (literally Crisis). By 1949 Bergman was being noticed. His film Musik i Morker was nominated for the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival that year; however, it would be Sommarnattens leende (Smiles of a Summer Nihgt), released in 1955, that would be his break out film. It was nominated for the Palm d' Or at the Cannes film festival and won the award for Best European Film at the Danish Bodil Awards.

Two years later saw the release of the film that would make Bergman a force to be reckoned with. Det sjunde inseglet (The Seventh Seal, literally) received a good deal of critical acclaim and several awards, including the Special Jury Prize at Cannes (it was nominated for the Palm d'Or). Its imagery of a knight who plays a game of chess with Death became the most iconic of Bergman's entire career. It was with The Seventh Seal that Bergman entered his best period. Within a few years he directed the classics Smultronstallet (Wild Strawberries), Ansiktet (The Face, called The Magician here in the United States), Jungfrukallan (The Virgin Spring), Nattvardsgasterna (Winter Light), and Persona.

While the period from Det sjunde inseglet to Persona could be described as Bergman's Golden Age, he continued to produce widely acclaimed movies for nearly the rest of his life, turning his eye to television in his later years. Ansikte mot ansikte (Face to Face), released in 1976, would earn Bergman a Best Director nomination at the Oscars and win the award for Best Foreign Film at the Golden Globes. Fanny och Alexander (Fanny and Alexander) won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film in 1984 and earned Bergman another Best Director nomination. It would be his last major feature film, although he would continue to work both on stage and in television. His last work was the telefilm Saraband, first aired in 2003.

It is perhaps important to remember that Bergman was not only a film director,but worked in theatre as well. He directed his first play in 1938 when he was only 19. The last play he staged was a reinterpretation of Henrik Ibsen's Ghosts in 2002.

There can be no doubt that Ingrid Bergman was an innovator who revolutionised film. Alongside contemporaries Akira Kurosawa and Frederico Fellini he changed motion pictures forever. And like most innovators he went through a period of unpopularity. In the late Fifties and early Sixties he was known for his symbolism, existentialism, and the blending of fantastic imagery with realism. As the French New Wave grew ever more popular, it became fashionable to hold Bergman up to scorn. Much of the mockery hurled Bergman's way ended when he began to make more personal films such as Persona. Regardless, in the end Bergman would have his revenge. As legions of new fans discovered The Seventh Seal and The Virgin Spring, Bergman's early films regained their reputation as numbering among the greatest films of all time. Indeed, it is arugable that Bergman's early work is better remembered than many movies of the French New Wave. If Bergman's work was able to return to its rightful place among the classics of cinema, it is perhaps because he dealt with the ultimate questions of life: the meaning of existence, the existence of a deity, and how humanity relates to each other. In dealing with these questions, his films became timeless.

In time Bergman would prove to be a influence on such directors as Lars von Trier, Bille August, Woody Allen, and even Wes Craven. What is more, he is one of the few arthouse directors whose films have entered the collective unconscious of the United States and the United Kingdom. The Seventh Seal was parodied in Bill and Ted's Bogus Journey, in which Bill and Ted must play Death at Battleship, Clue, electronic football, and Twister. Wes Craven remade The Virgin Spring as Last House on the Left. His early film Smiles of a Summer Night was tranformed into the musical A Little Night Music by Stephen Sondheim. A script direction in The Simpsons episode "Moaning Lisa," in which Lisa looks in a mirror, was simply, "an Ingmar Bergman moment." His impact on Anglo-American pop culture can even be seen in the influence he had on, of all things, Monty Python and the Holy Grail, whose Middle Ages look remarkably like that of Det sjunde inseglet. It is not every director who can say his works have had an impact on entertainment both high and low brow.

Sadly, many of the homages and references to Bergman's work is probably lost on the average American. This is tragic, as he was quite possibly the greatest living director of our time. With passing today, there is simply no one left to match him. The other truly great directors of his time, Kurosawa, Kubrick, Fellini, and Truffaut, had all died before he did. With Bergman, we have seen the passing of a generation of filmmakers. And, unfortunately, I doubt that we see their like again for many, many years.

Sunday, 29 July 2007

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (No Spoilers!)


It was ten years ago that Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone was published in the United Kingdom. Since that time the Harry Potter series has become an outright phenomenon, one to match Star Wars and The Beatles. There haven't just been the books themselves and the movies based on the books, but scores of merchandise. Even a casual search on the Internet will reveal literally thousands of web sites, blogs, message boards, and so on dedicated to the Harry Potter series. It should be no surprise, then, that Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows sold 11 million copies in the United Kingdom and United States in its first day. Indeed, worldwide it became the fastest selling book of all time.

Given this, the pertinent question might be, "Is the book worth all the furore surrounding it? For me, at least, the answer is, "Yes." Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows is definitely the best book in a series that some already consider a classic, alongside L. Frank Baum's Oz books and the works of Robert Louis Stevenson. Whether the series is truly a classic is something that only time will tell. For myself, however, the series is not only truly entertaining, but outright riveting. What is more, for books written for young adults (that's librarian for "adolescents"), they possess a surprising amount of depth in terms of the characters and the world they inhabit. In being the best of the Harry Potter series, then, it can be argued that Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows is the best of the best.

While it is the best book in the series, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows also stands apart from the rest of the series to a degree. In many respects Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows reads like an action-adventure novel, with some very intense action scenes occurring regularly throughout the novel. This should come as no surprise to anyone who has read the past six books. After all, Voldemort has finally returned and the wizarding world is at war. This makes Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows a very exciting novel and one that is hard to put down. What sets Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows apart is J. K. Rowling's gift for character development. In the final Harry Potter book, the characters we have known so long have a depth and complexity never seen before in the series, a series whose popularity grew in part out of its three dimensional characters.

All of this having been said, for fans like myself Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows can be a very difficult book to read. The novel has a considerable body count, and it is not just the bad guys who die. This is a natural outgrowth of Rowling's gift for realistic characters--she lets the characters drive the plot rather than the plot drive the characters. A lesser writer might be tempted to spare popular characters in hopes of appeasing their readership. Not Rowling, she lets the personalities of the characters and the logical progression of events determine who lives and who dies. And while this makes Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows all the more enjoyable, it also makes painful at times to read.

Ultimately, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows is a satisfying conclusion to what may be the most popular book series of our time. It cannot have been easy for Rowling to have produced a book that not only ties up all the loose ends, but also entertains and does so in a logical manner as well. That she has done so is a tribute to her talent as a writer. Other series of books have sometimes simply petered out. Fortunately, the Harry Potter series has ended on a high note.