How to Dress Well – Cold Nites

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The Story of Two Masked Men

There Will Be Blood 01

Paul Thomas Anderson’s new film, There Will Be Blood, is as intense as it is powerful. It is a dark and beautiful movie, and if it does not earn the Academy Award for Best Picture, I feel certain it will at least be nominated.

Much has been written already about this film, and I’m not going to rehash any of what has already been said. I just have a few thoughts I wanted to share. This is not the easiest film to parse, so I will try to explain the pieces of it that make sense to me. Spoilers are therefore inevitable.

The film is about two fundamentally American characters, each conforming to a certain established type, and each wearing that type like a mask as a means of achieving success. Daniel Day-Lewis plays Daniel Plainview, an self-made businessman who is attempting to capitalize on the Oil rush of the early 20th century. He wears the mask of a plain-spoken, down-to-earth, sensible businessman, when in fact he is a ruthless and cunning entrepreneur. Paul Dano (the mute brother in Little Miss Sunshine) plays Eli Sunday, a self-proclaimed prophet and preacher who is attempting to exploit the poverty and hopelessness of the time to build his own church. He wears the mask of the man of God, when he really is a desperate, calculating opportunist.

Though there is certainly an allegory of business vs. religion underlying the film, the story mostly focuses on Plainview’s character, and on his relationships with those close to him, as he tries to build his Oil business.

Comparisons have been rightly made to Citizen Kane, and other such “Rise and Fall” stories, and Plainview has a fatal flaw like his cinematic forebearers. With a nod to the New Calvinism that is so popular today in America, Plainview’s flaw is that in his relentless pursuit of success, he has a complete lack of tolerance for weakness and failure. There is a great moment at the end of the film’s trailer where Plainview says “I can’t keep doing this on my own. With these…people.” This comes after Plainview is explaining how he hates most everybody, and has trouble finding anything to like in most people he meets. What he means is that he simply cannot stand the weakness in people, the frailty. The film opens with Plainview mining for gold on his own and suffering a broken leg. He climbs out of the mine and pulls himself back to town, surviving simply on force of will. What Plainview cannot stand is anyone weaker than he.

This complete lack of tolerance for other people’s weakness provides the conflict Plainview has with those close to him, most significantly his adopted son and his adopted brother. He clearly grows to love his son H.W., and cares for him constantly until H.W. is injured in a major oil drilling accident, and is rendered completely deaf. Only then do we start to see Plainview exhibit the kind of attitude he takes with others with his own son (though even then he tends to him still). Next, Plainview is visited by a man claiming to be his long, lost brother from another mother, Henry. Plainview latches on to Henry in a very significant way, essentially making him his new partner in the business (replacing his now deaf and understandably depressed son). This last through much of the story, until Plainview “realizes” that Henry is not really his brother, but an opportunistic con-man trying to get ahead. This “realization” only happens after Henry succumbs to alcohol and prostitutes, and we see Plainview start to look at him as he sees the great teeming masses of poor souls he cannot stand.

This is a flaw that Plainview ironically shares with his preacher nemesis Eli Sunday, as we see most starkly in one scene where Eli climbs over the dinner table to beat his father, calling him “stupid” and “weak.” He is angered that his father allowed Plainview into their community and was so easily duped into accepting far less money than the land was worth. In this incredibly un-pious behavior, Eli reveals his true masters and demons.

Ultimately the film is about some of the most fundamental issues America and American culture have been dealing with for centuries: identity, independence, strength vs. weakness, the role of religion, etc. Watching Anderson’s new film, you really do get the feeling you are watching a classic of American Cinema – a film that will be watched and discussed for the next century in the same way that many early films are still watched and discussed today.

Some random other bits:

  • Before the film, we saw the trailer for Michael Haneke’s new film Funny Games. While I am definitely interested in this film, the trailer tries a little too hard to make the Kubrick connection, and if anything There Will Be Blood has more Kubrick in it than anything Haneke is likely to produce.

  • Though very intense and at times violent, the film feels almost old fashioned in its lack of specific visual gore. In a time when we are accustomed to seeing ears, fingers, and even heads lopped off, the violence in Anderson’s film is starkly impressionistic.

  • The music is one of the key elements that makes There Will Be Blood a success. Composed by Jonny Greenwood (Radiohead’s guitarist), it is unlike much any other movie music you’ve ever heard (with the exception of some of Kubrick’s stranger choices). Greenwood’s choices are so involved that I could see watching the film yet again simply to absorb and analyze the commentary of the music on the visuals. It really is a character in its own right and is quite the achievement from this first-time narrative film composer.

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Belated July 4 Meme

In honor of America’s Independence Day, movie fan site Ain’t it Cool News hosted a “Top 10 Films about America” get-together for all their writers. Here are my picks (in no particular order):

  1. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

  2. Dr. Strangelove

  3. Taxi Driver/Badlands

  4. Birth of a Nation

  5. JFK/Nixon

  6. The Candidate/The Contender

  7. Million Dollar Baby

  8. Midnight Cowboy/The Grapes of Wrath

  9. Do the Right Thing

  10. Citizen Kane/The Bad and the Beautiful

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Undo? Definitely possible on the Web

Ryan Stewart (great blogger and Adobe evangelist) recently blogged about his trouble with Google Reader:

I just screwed up. I accidentally marked all of my Google reader items as read when what I intended to do was mark a specific folder as read. If this was a desktop application I could hit undo and I’d back up, have all of my data the way I want it, and be ready to read all of the delicious feeds I’ve been missing this week. But Google Reader is a web application, so I can’t do that, I’m just SOL.

This is actually just a problem with Google Reader, and not with web apps in general. In fact, many of Google’s applications make wonderful use of Undo. I was alerted to this fact by a talk that Aza Raskin (the late Jeff Raskin’s son) gave at Google, called the Death of the Desktop. He talks about “Are you sure” messages and why they were so problematic. Raskin explains what we all know instinctively, that when you have initiated a task any message that is trying to warn you away is going to be ignored as you are trying to complete your task. Over time we begin to develop muscle memory to just click OK. What works much better is realize that it is only after you have completed your task that you then may want to not have done it in the first place. This is why Gmail’s status messages that double as Undo controls work so well. Just selected 20 messages and marked them as junk? Gmail gives you the option to Undo. Just changed the labels on your work messages from “work” to “from mom?” Gmail lets you undo. As Raskin points out, though, some other Google apps need to get on board this train as well (he uses Calendar, Stewart is frustrated with Reader). For my money, this is how web apps should work, at least whenever they can. Anyone know what technical limitations on this feature might be?

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The Best Article on the new iPhone/ApplePhone

Khoi Vinh, of NYTimes.com, writes the absolute best article on the new Apple-made cell phone that everyone and their grandmother seems to think is being announced/released at MacWorld Expo on Tuesday.

Vinh talks about how he has been planning on replacing his Palm Treo 650 with whatever Apple decides to release in the mobile phone arena:

In fact, when I think of that passel of features in terms of what a design tyrant like Jobs might release, it seems somewhat unlikely. Very unlikely. I mean, think about it: does it seem remotely possible that Steve Jobs would release a phone that’s a browser, an application platform, a camera, a PDA, an email client and an iPod? Would you bet money that he would? That kind of modal schizophrenia seems like it would be a clear affront to his sensibilities, and none of this even addresses whether the phone will sport a keyboard. I’d be happy if I’m wrong, but can we really expect a phone with a keyboard from the Barnum-like genius who gave us an iPod without a screen?

It’s a great piece – go read it.

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VoIP Exploitation

Vonage Deal?

I’m a pretty happy Vonage user. It’s cheaper than the Cable or Telco alternatives. Especially now that we have an income (I just found a job) and have upgraded our internet to the Time Warner maximum of 5 Megabit, it works really well.

However, I just received a phone call on our Vonage line from…Vonage! Was this because we had not paid our bill? No. Was this because there was a problem with our service? No.

It was a telemarketing call. They were trying to sell, no trick, us into adding a $9.99 second line onto our Vonage account. They could not even be straight about what they were calling for. “Hello sir, we want to let you know we are adding a second line to your Vonage service.” “But”, I said “I was under the impression that that extra feature was 10 dollars extra per month.” “Not so” the kind Indian telemarketer replied. “You will be getting this second line for only $0.99, for the first two months.” You can see where this went. I promptly told him I was not interested and he hung up.

The first place I headed after that, as steamed as I was, was the Vonage website. I logged in, and looked around for a place to “opt out” of said telemarketing calls. Maybe a “how can we contact you?” option. I would not mind receiving emails, but I definitely am NOT OK with them calling my home tricking me and my family into accepting a larger bill for features we DO NOT NEED. No such option is available on the Vonage website.

The second thing I looked for is a place for feedback on the Vonage website. They have a place for email technical support, but NO FEEDBACK FORM.

Vonage, this is completely and utterly unacceptable. It also reminds me of a post I’ve thought about on great, small companies who do sketchy things for exposure (see Netflix). I’m gonna go punch something.

GAAAAAA!!

UPDATE 11/19:  It seems that Vonage is having some real trouble these days. Here’s another disturbing tale regarding privacy and exploitation.

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Our Wedding!

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