Archive for June 2012

Stunning Photos in the Aussie Outback

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The Telegraph is running a beautiful photo series of "Star Trails," taken by Australian photographer Lincoln Harrison. It's nearly impossible to believe that these photos aren't generated on a computer somewhere, but rest assured, they are real. Harrison stood for 15 hours a night in freezing temperatures to capture the movement of the stars throughout the night.


There's something to be said for the power of seeing the world move. Many have tried to hold a moonbeam in their hands. Capturing nature's magic in a single frame feels almost magical.

Check out more of Harrison's work at his website: Enjoy!

A Tribute to Caroline John's Liz Shaw, The Best Doctor Who Companion of Them All

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Screen shot 2012 06 27 at 7 19 26 PM

Until 2007, when I discovered the weird and wonderful world of online Doctor Who fandom, my answer to the question of "who's your favorite companion" was straightforward. Liz Shaw, played by the late Caroline John.

Why did I leave her behind? Simple: there's no skin in the game where Liz Shaw is concerned. She's uncontroversially, incontrovertibly, awesome. She's the only Who companion fired because audiences didn't like that she was smarter than the Doctor.

One has to wonder whether the discomfort lay not only in the idea that a human could equal the Doctor, but a human woman at that. After all, when she left, the writers gave us Jo Grant, the archetype of googley-eyed alien father-figure worship. Liz had no time for hero worship; she was too busy getting shit done.

The writers certainly knew this. Think of Inferno, which depicted a parallel Earth where the Brigadier and UNIT's military arrogance had gone almost completely unchecked, save for the restraining influence of Liz's alter-ego. The Doctor knows she's the only one who can be reasoned with in any Earthbound scenario; again and again, she proves him right.

Her time on the show was all too short, but there's no other companion who had such a strangely perfect run of episodes. Spearhead from Space offered terror rarely seen until the Moffat episodes of Nu-Who, while Ambassadors of Death perfectly captured both the uncertainty and excitement that accompanied our real-life forays into outer space. Then there was The Silurians, certainly one of the finest explorations of humanity in the show's history.

These stories were dark, reflective of science fiction themes the show hadn't really addressed before, and hasn't since. This couldn't have happened without giving the Doctor a human equal, someone to show that the dangers are real, not just fictions in the mind of a judgmental alien with a god complex.

Liz Shaw was that equal. Caroline John may have passed, but her character lives on as one of the greats.

On The Mona Lisa Curse and Art As Commodity



What's a piece of art worth, anyway?

To me, fine art is something to be loved, to be appreciated, not a commodity to be bought or sold. It's the last act of creation that bears some semblance of freedom from commercial concern. Certainly there are limits on what captures the popular imagination, and there's pressure to fit in with the cool kids in the trendy galleries, but fundamentally, art remains the act of the self. A patron cannot command an artist to move a line to a different part of the canvas, nor can he or she modify the artwork on their own without killing the "value" of the work.

So unlike music, film or literature, there's no space for patrons or buyers to actually place their own stamp on the artwork. What they can do is curate popular taste at astronomical costs.

In The Mona Lisa Curse (which is available on youtube for immediate watch), the narrator talks about how Gustav Klimt is the height of this purchased bamboozling. It may be worth millions in the fine art trade, but "Adele Bloch Bauer" is still a pretty horrible work of art (Klimt's so cliché that even Joss Whedon, a writer who isn't prone to aesthetic commentary, makes fun of his work in Buffy).

By placing that dollar value on it, however, the public is tricked into believing that liking the world's most expensive is the ultimate arbiter of good taste. Art critic Robert Hughes describes this as the "fictionalization of art." These millionaires can't change the artwork itself, but their "plutocratic wings" can certainly change how you see it and what you think of it.

You might think, "so what?" Isn't this still an improvement over a system when artists could only make a living if they're commissioned by the aristocracy?

There are two problems that are evident:

1. This system devalues the act of individual discovery. When you walk into a museum and find a work that truly blows your socks off, you're forced to wonder what others think of it, why it hasn't received as much press as celebrity masterworks, and why you don't have to fight a crowd of tourists to press your nose up to the glass.

2. The curation of art ceases to be a democratic process, or even an informed process. All it takes for a painting to be newsworthy these days is a price tag that exceeds $20 million or so. It doesn't matter whether it's loved by the masses, whether it represents a moment in time, or even whether an art critic finds it the exemplar of a movement. All that matters is that some jackass with more money than sense kinda liked it, and a bunch of other jackasses decided to bid against the original jackass. That's literally all it takes for a painting to be considered "valuable" or "important" these days. It's one person's opinion, in a world where my opinion or yours could never be as valuable as the one-percenter's opinion.

On Loving Unlikeable Characters in Fiction



What do Girls, We Need to Talk About Kevin, Young Adult, and Confederacy of Dunces all have in common? These works, broadly considered to be the most polarizing (and challenging) of our time, all feature protagonists that most of us would happily lock inside a vehicle set on cruise control over the side of a very tall cliff. I, however, would at least wait until the story's over.

The unlikable protagonist sets up a delicious tension in any work of art; we don't like them, so we automatically dismiss everything they hold to be true, until slowly, almost imperceptibly, we start to recognize a little bit of ourselves in them. Once that happens, we can't help but hate ourselves, just a little: "If I see this much of myself in that character, how much more might be there that I'm not seeing?"

You see this most readily in critiques of Lena Dunham's fabulously horrible Hannah Horvath, in Girls. "I would never behave this selfishly, therefore I find it impossible to believe that Hannah could act in such a myopic manner," reads so many comment threads.

However, even by making that comment, you show that something about Hannah's character mirrors your own, unsettling you in a way that makes you rush to dismiss that connection by stating that her character is "impossible in reality."


The common trait of the unlikable protagonist is a gargantuan level of self-involvement. Who wants to admit such a quality to themselves? More to the point, who can even recognize that quality in themselves?

In Young Adult, Charlize Theron plays a character who's morally vacant and miles beyond redemption, though she's wonderfully inventive in ways to destroy her life and the lives of those around her. We applaud her creativity and complete lack of self-awareness, even as we pray for her come-uppance.

But something strange happens; we learn that her humanity is not destroyed, merely suppressed. It's been beaten down so far that it only surfaces for a second before receding back into her, where it will likely remain. And so we arrive at the painful truth: she's completely self-aware, but circumstances have taught her that this is how to live in the world.

The truth about the unlikable protagonist is that he or she holds a mirror to our unknown selves, and makes us take a closer look at our morality and our idea of humanity. Eva Katchatourian, in Lionel Shriver's We Need to Talk About Kevin, suffers horrible consequences because of her monstrous son's actions.


She didn't commit the crime, but she receives ample punishment. But we don't like her, so we feel she deserves it. What does that say about us, that we accept that the act of selfishness is as deserving of punishment as the brutal murder of scores of schoolchildren?

This is why I love the unlikable protagonist, and why that same character can be so off-putting to others. They take us to the dark places within our souls, forcing us to confront them instead of shrugging them off or cloaking them under a thin veneer of "morality" or "redemption." It takes all types to make the world go around, and I believe these stories arm us with a smidgen of empathy. And usually they provide us with a hell of a lot of laughs.

Who's your favorite unlikable character? Or do you find this type of fiction unreadable/unwatchable?

Metric's New Album Snoozetica, sorry, Synthetica



Metric's new record is a strange hybrid of their very first album, Soft Rock Star, and Ladytron on a soporific. It's too soon for me to say whether it's good or bad, but there are certain production choices that are causing intermittent twitching behind my eyes (so bad, then?).

I could never say that something "sounds like Tangerine Dream" and mean it as an insult, so trust that I only mean the best possible things when I say that the best parts of Synthetica sound like they would fit right in with an eighties movie scored by TD (btw, has anyone watched The Keep recently? Batshit insanity. I cannot recommend it, but I can insist that you watch it). (so good, then?)

One thing I do know: there's not a single song on this album that's danceable. This much I do expect from Metric. The closest we get is the youthful exuberance of "Nothing but Time," which is putting Metric smack in the era of Star's Ageless Beauty, which, by the way, is the same era when Metric was kicking everyone's asses with songs like "Poster of a Girl" and "Empty."

As with most Metric albums, however, the proof lies in the live show. I can see how some of these songs take life on the stage. And lest I forget, there's one truly standout track: "The Wanderlust," featuring what is possibly the strangest, most random guest vocal in history (Lou Reed, muthafuckahs!).

I will leave you with remembrances of Metric from a better time, with the superlatively creative video for "Combat Baby":


NY Bucket List: Sichuan Peppercorns

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A couple days ago, the Village Voice published a tale of the "crater-faced old woman," known to you and me as ma po tofu. Well, contrary to what your local greasy Chinese takeaway may offer, real ma po tofu isn't actually an oily mess, but actually a delicate dish that uses sichuan peppercorns to maximum effect.

These little bombshells keep popping up in reviews of New York Chinese food, which is experiencing a little bit of a revolution, as Szechuan cuisine is becoming more readily available. So I made it my Sunday mission to find an authentic Szechuan restaurant as I wandered through Midtown, and at last stumbled upon a place aptly named Mapo Tofu.

Sichuan peppercorns were banned by the FDA until 2005, so don't be surprised if it hasn't shown up in a cuisine near you yet. But try it if you can. It's unlike anything I've ever tasted - neither spicy nor hot, the flavor's more herbal than anything else.

But the flavor's not the point - it's all about the effect. It not only numbs the mouth, it makes everything you eat taste different, more flavorful, more balanced. As food scientist Harold Mcgee wrote in his book "On Food and Cooking", it's like putting a nine-volt battery to the tongue and will "induce sensitivity to touch and cold in nerves that are ordinarily nonsensitive, and so perhaps cause a kind of general neurological confusion."

The classic example is water. If you drink a glass of warm water after eating a peppercorn, your mouth will feel freezing cold, and the water will taste metallic, like drinking a cloud of acid rain. I'm not going to pretend it was a pleasant sensation, but it's definitely one of a kind.

The main dish, on the other hand? Tasted absolutely amazing. And since Mapo Tofu served monstrous-sized portions, I'll be digging in again in just a few minutes :).

Trailer of the Day: Les Miserables

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It's no secret to those that know me that Les Miserables is one of my favorite novels of all time (I guess I just have a thing for socially conscious doorstoppers about poverty, nobility, revolution and the ultimate impossibility of redemption).

Of course, due to that doorstopper-iness (tots a word), it's basically un-filmable. So I'm more than a little interested in seeing the movie musical version. Though the trailer focuses on Fantine, what strikes me most is how this is the role Hugh Jackman was born to play.

Amanda Seyfried seems perfect for Cosette, and Hathaway's singing is more than competent. As for the boy? Marius was my first great love, and I've long given up on any movie portrayal matching the image in my head. At least Eddie Redmayne has the requisite intensity.

Share your thoughts below!

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