Friday, May 30, 2003

I recently saw The Matrix Reloaded, which sucked even more than I thought it would. If you'll forgive the geekiness, I decided to engage the movie on its own terms and figure out exactly why it was so terrible, apart from the awful dialog, muddled plotline and bad acting. If you haven't seen the movie, don't worry. I'm not spoiling anything, because there's really nothing to spoil.

It turns out the Architect's speech at the end wasn't just superficially designed to make you think it was confusing. It really and truly didn't make any sense. Here is a transcript of the speech, which is essentially the climax of the movie, where everything is supposed to be explained. Neo is given a choice between two doors, and decides to save Trinity instead of -- well, that's just it. Instead of what? If you re-read the speech, you'll find that the Architect is actually lying about the final choice. What he says doesn't make sense given what he's previously explained.

To re-cap: He basically tells Neo, to Neo's shock and dismay, that his journey is but a built-in corrective to keep the Matrix functioning properly. Just as in all previous versions of the Matrix, the One will "return to the source, allowing a temporary dissemination of the code you carry, reinserting the prime program," whatever that hell that means. But by the time the One does that, Zion is destroyed -- each and every time -- by the digging machines. Therefore, to ensure the survival of the human race, the "One" must always takes a group of 23 people "from the Matrix" (i.e. not from Zion, because they're all dead) and reconstitute and rebuild Zion. He does this because if he didn't, the whole Matrix would break down and kill everybody attached to it. Since all "free" humans were already destroyed by the digging machines, that would mean no more humans. So the One rebuilds Zion to ensure the survival of the human race, thus assuring the survival of the Matrix, and the whole process repeats itself, ad infinitum.

Of course the difference with Neo is that he loves one human above and beyond all of humanity. So rather than choosing to save humanity, he chooses to save Trinity, even though the consequences of that are (depending on which part of the Architect's speech you believe) either cataclysmic or completely unknown.

The architecht says: "There are two doors. The door to your right leads to the source, and the salvation of Zion."

Not true. If this is the route that all Neo's predecessors have taken, then the Architect has just explained that Zion is always destroyed. Returning to the source will not save Zion; it will merely allow Neo to rebuild it. I would hardly call it "salvation" if everybody is killed and he has to repopulate it with 23 people plus himself.

Then: "The door to the left leads back to the matrix, to her, and to the end of your species."

Again, not true. There is no indication what will happen if Neo doesn't immediately return to the source. The Matrix will presumably keep running, and the people attached to the Matrix will presumably stay alive. There's no reason to think otherwise. I think it's safe to assume that Zion is destroyed, since Neo doesn't do anything to stop it and their situation is otherwise pretty hopeless. Unless, of course, Neo can return to Zion soon enough and use his new special outside-the-Matrix superpowers to stop those damn machines from digging. Or maybe Agent Smith will have something to do with it. After all we never really found out what Agent Smith's "purpose" is except we think he wants to become human (cutting himself to feel pain). If this story follows the pattern of every Frankenstein story, Agent Smith's "purpose" is to kill his creator (the Matrix, and the Architect in particular). There is of course the school of thought that says that Zion was actually part of the Matrix all along, a matrix-within-the-Matrix, and that "freedom" was merely part of the system of control. But whatever.

Along with a lot of other things, the Architect's speech sat uneasily with me, as did Neo's final "choice." Now I know why. If you forget briefly how bad the movie otherwise was, this was a cheap plot shortcut that simply doesn't make sense on the face of it.

I couldn't figure out what the hell happened in the final battle. Was Zion destroyed or not? This blogger tries to answer the question. You have to highlight the text with your cursor to read it.

All in all, I found The Matrix Reloaded to be a lot like a mediocre second-season Twin Peaks episode.
If you click here within the next few hours, you can download a PDF of the front page of Thursday's Wall Street Journal. There's a really good article on Ronald McDonald on the front page. Apparently McDonald's is "beefing up" the role of the 40-year-old clown. You have to be a subscriber to read the whole thing online, but here are a few key graphs:

The careful choreography of this clown's every step shows the McDonald's machine in high gear. No detail is too small. In 1999, McDonald's ad agency Leo Burnett hired a Los Angles stylist to refashion Ronald's wavy red hair, and it spent months studying whether to increase the width of the red stripes on his socks.

So protective of McDonald's of the character's mystique that men who play Ronald are never to admit that they do. Ronalds in costume aren't to say who they are in civilian life. That rather annoyed Craig A. Oatten, a police chief in Michigan, when a Ronald, in full red-and-yellow regalia, got into a fender bender near Saginaw a few years ago. Asked several times, the Ronald steadfastly refused to give his name for the police report.

"If we get someone who refuses to identify themselves, we'll take them to the local jail," says Chief Oatten. But, because there were no injuries involved, he spared the clown a trip downtown.
The PDF is worth looking at mainly because they have have one of those traditional WSJ black-and-white sketched mugs of Ronald McDonald. Oh yeah: Eating meat is bad. Don't eat meat.
Supposely here are absolutely all the world's embassies in a searchable database. Finally.

But either there's no Jordanian Embassy in Prague, or the site doesn't work that well. UPDATE: Ain't none, only a consulate, open 10-12, Mon-Thurs. Tel: 241 440 455.

Thursday, May 29, 2003

Chuffed I was, so they say, to see that late paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould debunked the myth, in his latest and final book, "that Bill Buckner single-handedly blew the Red Sox' chances of winning their first World Series since 1918 when he allowed a ball to roll through his legs in Game 6 of the 1986 World Series against the Mets."

Every Red Sox fan knows that the Mets had tied the game already, thanks to Calvin Schiraldi's wild pitch (or was it Rich Gedman's passed ball?) in the bottom of the 10th, after the Red Sox has been twice been one strike away for victory. And I believe a relief pitcher named Bob Stanley played a supporting role in the debacle. Plus, there was still Game 7 to blow. (As you might guess, the '86 Series was a formative -- and traumatic -- experience for me, age 12. I had just moved from the Boston suburbs to Long Island, the Mets' homeland. They really let me have it.)

Poor Bill. As far as I know, he was a decent ballplayer, but he'll forever be known as the guy who let an easy hit up the first base line slip through his legs. Sort of like the famous Fred Snodgrass, who after leaving baseball, went on to a distinguished career (scroll down) as a banker, rancher and even the mayor of Oxnard, California. When he died in 1974, his New York Times obituary carried the headline:

I am glad to see there's a "Don't Blame Buckner!" movement afoot.

Now on to the entertaining Slate article on Roger Clemens of the '86 Red Sox (now defected to the Yankees), one of baseball's last great eccentrics.
Pill v. Will. Here's a funny email Will Tizard, former food critic for Prague's English-language alt weekly Prague Pill, wrote to his erstwhile employer. I've decided not to include the preceding emails from the Pill boss, because that might be too rude. Basically, Pill told Will they'd decided to "put a hold on further articles" from Will because they were trying out a newbie who "came to us over the weekend with an interesting concept" for the "Dish" column (which I used to write, until I recommended Will take it over some weeks ago). Oh yeah, and there'd been some disagreement about a mention of George Gershwin.

I see. So when guys walk in over the weekend with an interesting idea you give them the spot of a veteran contributor who has agreed to work for you for a fraction of his usual rate. Did it occur to you once while doing this that you might have one sit-down to propose a revamping of the Dish format with me before deciding I am beyond the reach of any editorial help? Or dividing food and drink coverage to do something for diversity? But why bother? You didn't care for one Gerwshin lede (which I'm in agreement with, btw - you did improve the Dish lede), I'm over 30, and clearly well over the brink of senility.

Very nice and thanks for the lesson in PoMo journalism. If this is how it works, I guess I'll be content to remain totally sold out and establishment. At least Conde Nast Traveler and the London Evening Standard work with
writers a bit.

You'll be seeing my invoice for two articles at 1Kc a word plus expenses.

I have no dog in this fight, but I thought the letter was funny.

Wednesday, May 28, 2003

Indian Prime Minister Atal Vajpayee told Der Spiegel that if his peace initiative with Pakistan doesn't work, he'll resign.

Q: You said that this is your last peace initiative. And if it fails?
Vajpayee: Then I have to accept my defeat, then I retire.
Story from Times of India found on World Press Review's World Press Wire.

Tuesday, May 27, 2003

I found this BBC article about the forthcoming Czech EU referendum to be sort of dumb, in parts at least.

Zdenek Stefek, head of the still-powerful Communist Youth league, is using a Mayday workers' rally to tell working people they should vote "no" in the referendum on EU membership.
On stage, Zdenek tells the crowds that the EU exploits workers, that 10 years of capitalism have put millions out of work and brought profits only for the rich and powerful.
Yes, the Communists are still powerful, but I can't say I've heard much about the Communist Youth league. This guy doesn't bother mentioning how big nor how youthful that crowd was.


The parks above the Vltava river are full of people out enjoying the beer gardens and the sunshine.
OK this is probably true. Why am I at my desk and not at Letna?

But seriously, skip to the chart at the end. Forecasted referendum turnout: 28%. Yikes.
Follow up to Friday's Slate piece -- BBC provides a round-up of Europe-wide reaction to the draft EU constitution, which has been stripped of the F-word ("federal") followed Tony Blair's demands.

Also, there's an updated backgrounder on the draft constitution released yesterday.
Peter from Daily Czech: You must keep us informed of the mudslinging between Mlada Fronta and Tyden. I'm afraid I won't be able to follow it otherwise. I think both sides were already neck-deep in sludge when the bout began. I hate to generalize, but in my experience, Czech journalists make up a lot of stuff. In fact, I'm surprised nobody here has questioned what the big deal was about Jayson Blair.
I steadfastly refuse to waste any of my precious time on the Hobbit Name Generator... especially since Peter ("If I ever see and hear Pavarotti sing La Isla Bonita or American Pie, I'll turn into Krusty The Clown.") of The Daily Czech has wasted it for me. (He says I'm Lotho Hamwich of Buckleberry Fern.) Ditto for Peter's excellent usage of the Elvish Name Generator. For more time-wasting amusement, Uncle Dan recommends this.... this Flash thing about Bush. Not really a game, not really anything. But it's almost as much fun as bubble wrap.
Handy site. The European Union: Integration Process and European Citizenship. Put together by a Spanish history and geography teacher, Juan Carlos Ocaña.

Monday, May 26, 2003

I can't seem to stop blogging, because what I should be doing is so bloody tedious (typing out Czech production listings for Screen International) and the CD player on my computer doesn't seem to work.

Anyway, I wrote Friday's "International Papers" for Slate about the all-out warfare that's broken out between Britain's tabloids and the prime minister over his reluctance to hold a referendum on the EU Constitution. On the face of it, it's difficult to justify not holding a referendum when people are obviously getting riotous over an issue. Yet I can't help but agree with the government's position in this case. The EU Constitution really will not change much of anything. It simply codifies the numerous complicated treaties that constitute the EU (funny that verb...) in a single document. Euro-skeptics charge that the EU is overly bureaucratic and obstuse; why should they complain about an effort to make it less so?

It seems the real objection is over the word "constitution." Traditionally, independent states have "constitutions" to define how their government works, while two or more states have "treaties" between them. Indeed, the opposition's complaint could pretty easily be taken care of if they simply stopped calling the as-yet-unwritten EU Constitution a "constitution" and simpy called it the GUT, or "Grand Unified Treaty."
On Czech Radio's 80th anniversary, the station's news service runs this story on the 1945 Prague Uprising. About a mile from my apartment, a commemorative plaque out in front of Czech Radio headquarters reads: "Voláme všechny èechy. 5.5.1945 12:33. Signál pražského povstání" or "Calling all Czechs. May 5, 1945, 12:33pm. Signal of the Prague Uprising."

I've always taken a shine to this terse memorial and found it somewhat moving, not simply because of the enormity of what was at stake and the earnestness of the appeal, but also because it's funny, in a macabre sort of way. After all, it's so very Czech: "Attention Czechs. Please report to the uprising. Attendance is mandatory."

Actually, what they said was:

Calling all Czechs. Come to our help at once. Come and defend Czech Radio. The SS are murdering Czech people here. Come and help us. You can still get in through the Balbinova Street entrance...
The broadcasts to American, British and Soviet toops in English and Russian are worth listening to:

Here is Prague! Here is Prague! Americans and English - help us! We need guns. There are too many Germans!
The Red Army did not arrive until May 9, by which time 3,000 people had died in the fighting. All around the city you still see plaque saying "zde padl" or "here fell" following by somebody's name. Sometimes I ask aloud whether anybody helped him up, but I mean no disrespect. It's good that these people's names are remembered, especially when most of the deaths could have been avoided had the Americans moved on from Plzeò.

That reminds me. I have a friend who says the first thing she remembers about the 1989 revolution was a group of classmates standing out in front of her school. She was 13 or 14. One girl said in a whisper that her parents told her it wasn't true that all of Czechoslovakia was liberated by the Russians. "Come on, that can't be," was the response from the crowd of incredulous schoolgirls.
Vincent Gallo (actor, writer, director, producer, cameraman) has apologized to the world at large for making such a crap film, following The Brown Bunny's disasterous reception at the Cannes Film Festival.

The man behind Buffalo 66 (a great movie, as I recall) told Screen Daily: "I accept what the critics say. If no-one wants to see it, they’re right – it’s a disaster of a film and it was a waste of time. I apologise to the financiers of the film but I assure you it was never my intention to make a pretentious film, a self-indulgent film, a useless film, an unengaging film.... I thought that I was compelled by something beautiful that I could share with other people. I’m disappointed that people aren’t responding to it in that way. I can only apologise to the people who feel they’ve wasted their time."

That's not all. Gallo said he realizes that that "what I think is beautiful doesn’t match up with what the general population thinks. I don’t know how to give people what they want. I worked hard on the film, I liked it very much. I’m disappointed that again, what I like is unpopular. That doesn’t make me happy, let me assure you." He said the Cannes screening was "the worst feeling I ever had in my life" and he will probably never watch the movie again.

Poor guy. What can you say to that? I've seen some criminally bad movies in my life, and I have no idea how awful The Brown Bunny really is, but I'm sure I've never heard of a writer-director beat himself up like this over it. Kind of makes me want to go see the movie, or at least rent the video.

In news closer to home, Prague's Stillking has announced it's making an original feature based on last year's Moscow theatre hostage crisis.

Almost forgot. Gus van Sant (who still hasn't apologized for To Die For) won the Cannes Palme d'Or with a movie about a high school shooting called Elephant. Apparently it was the worst Cannes in years.