Sunday, August 30, 2009

The future (and past) of horror

Warning -- this contains a few spoilers. So if you see a movie mentioned but haven't seen it yet, skip a few sentences.

In keeping with long-standing tradition, I rented a non-Laura-approved movie while she was out of town last week. The movie: Phantasm, which might have been 1979's creepiest movie*. I hadn't seen it since the late '80s, and was curious if it was still creepy. And, it really wasn't. I was almost impressed with how non-creepy, almost funny, some of the "scary" scenes were. I wonder how much of this is due to the evolution of film as a medium -- that is, due to the fact that today's audiences and filmmakers are so much more genre-savvy. And this works both ways. We're less scared by things that are now cliche; when we see a guy open a door from the right camera angle, we just know a bad guy's going to be standing behind the door when it closes; the first time we saw this happen (Halloween, I think), it made us levitate out of our seats. Also, a modern filmmaker has a different set of expectations to exploit. They know their audience, they take advantage of our assumptions, and those assumptions are different than they were 30 years ago.

I wonder how a 1979 audience would react to a really creepy modern movie -- The Grudge, maybe, or The Descent. I suspect they'd wet their pants. Some of the creep factor comes from our assumptions being broken; in the beginning of The Grudge, when Yoko peeks into the attic, we the audience are conditioned by years of horror movies to expect that it's a false alarm, that we're about to get a false scare, maybe a mannequin falling over or a cat jumping out. It's too early in the film for us to really meet the creepies. When the ghost grabs her, it's doubly shocking. It's a scare, and it was totally unexpected. Plus, the level of allowable gore has changed significantly; Phantasm's silver sphere spewing a stream of fake blood while attached to a man's head is less than a shadow of the moment in The Grudge when we meet the girl with her jawbone torn away, her tongue waggling in the gaping space.

Dehumanization is also creepy; Linda Blair's head spinning and her spider-walking down the stairs in The Exorcist were among the film's scariest moments, largely because she had blatantly crossed into the realm of no-longer-human. Phantasm tried this too, to less effect than The Exorcist, and extremely less effect than The Grudge. Phantasm's mutant dwarf reanimated-corpse attacks are much less creepy than the first time Toshio opens his mouth unnaturally wide and the only sound to emerge is the screech of a cat. We saw glimpses of this in some earlier movies, but the concept has been taken to a new height in recent years.

The Grudge is also scarier on a deeper level. The heroes in Phantasm learn of something odd going on in the old mortuary, and their quest for the film is to solve the mystery of what's happening, and to defeat the servants of evil (or aliens). In The Grudge, every character who enters the house dies. The quest is to figure out the house's history, mostly to pass the time until the evil that dwells there snatches you from between your own bedsheets after driving you insane with fear. There's no fighting the curse, no winning over evil; our heroes (and, by extension, the moviegoers who put ourselves in their shoes) are all doomed from the beginning. It's a more existential horror.

So, my question is: what will horror be like in another twenty-five years? What will they be doing then, that will make a 2009 audience member wet himself? Unless movies shift to virtual-reality simulators, I can't even guess at the next paradigm shift.
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* 1979 was a good year for creepy movies, with The Amityville Horror, David Cronenberg's The Brood, John Carpenter's The Fog, and the film adaption of Stephen King's Salem's Lot....

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Mouthy, for a cat

I got home from donating platelets after work and decided to take a little nap on the couch. Unfortunately for the napping plans, the new kitten really wanted to play with me -- specifically, the head part of me. The following conversation ensued:

"Stop chewing on my ears, evil cat!"
Picassa raised her head. "I'll have you know that I'm not evil, and I can prove it."
"Okay, this I've got to hear."
"Well," she started, pondering her response while cleaning her claws, "evil is an abstract concept. And I am clearly a concrete kitten. Therefore I cannot possibly be evil."
I snickered. "There are so many logical fallacies in that argument, I don't know where to start."
Picassa shrugged, contemplating which of my ears looked like a better target. "I'm a kitten. You were maybe expecting Aristotle?"

Oh, yes -- this one is going to be a handful.

Monday, August 24, 2009

No Cash For Our Clunkers

Laura and I briefly debated using the Cash for Clunkers program to get a new car. We didn't, partially because we can't afford a car payment at the moment, but mostly because our only government-defined Clunker is the Jeep, which Laura really likes. And you can't use the program to trade a Jeep for a newer Jeep. My 1995 Saturn with 140,000 miles on it that won't drive on the interstate: not a clunker.

But we thought about it. It's an interesting program. And we would love to own at least one vehicle that could drive more than 50 miles without needing some sort of major repair.

I thought about what this program is designed for. I'm a wee bit worried that it's the vehicular version of a sub-prime home loan. The target market consists of people driving old cars that are worth less than $4500 for a trade-in, and people whose older cars get poor mileage. This looks like they're selecting, to a large extent, for people who have never bought a new car before. To what extent are they pushing people who can't necessarily afford it into buying a new car?

We heard some fuss made about the fact that most of the cars purchased through the program are foreign cars. I'm fine with this. Detroit has spent decades cranking out inefficient, poorly engineered, poorly designed cars. They invented the concept of planned obsolescence, and now they're reaping the whirlwind. I feel utterly no pity for them. It's a shame so many good people are hurt by their impending doom, but the companies themselves are getting what they deserve.

Health Care Reform Made Simple

Nobody asked me, but I came up with a brilliant solution for the health-care problem. Here goes:

Push the enrollment age for Medicare down to 60.

This is all kinds of brilliant, as far as I can tell. For one thing, any change will need to happen slowly, both to give people time to get used to the change, and to minimize negative economic impact. This is a tiny step. It also dodges pretty much all of the non-substantive arguments against health care reform, the ones bandied about on talk radio. It's an existing program, and it hasn't been self-funded for years anyway. And it won't require creating any new bureaucracy.

It'll also keep insurance for the under-60 crowd cheaper. Following the theory that older=sicker (in a broad actuarial sense), cutting these older people from the regular insurance rolls will help drive down costs for everyone. And, it's an easy solution -- no five-hundred-page legal tomes are required to explain this plan. There could be no questions about how or whether the program will work; it already does.

As a side note, it'd be nice if Medicare could bargain with drug companies for lower drug prices. But that's a question for another time....

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Let Me Sum Up: Virginia, Kitten, Matrix, GenCon

It's been a busy couple of weeks. Laura and I spent a week in the Washington, DC area visiting her family, and I spent the next week working 40 hours plus attending all four days of GenCon. So now that I've got a minute to sit down at a keyboard, let me sum up:

It's always nice getting a chance to spend time with Laura's family. We took a side trip to visit her brother Gary, and that was a blast; I like him and his family. We also made a lunch date with Laura's old friend Bruce, and I'm always happy when we can get together with him. The real adventure of the trip was that we had to take a kitten with us; we've recently acquired a fifth indoor cat (you may commence with the Crazy Cat People jokes), and she's been sick for most of the time she's been in. She barely survived a fight with an opossum, so we took her in and rescued her from Certain Doom, and took her to the vet for repairs and a tune-up. One of her wounds had gotten infected, so she had a huge abscess on her chest; she went to the vet the day before we left and had kitty surgery, and the vet put a drain in her chest. We couldn't leave her unattended here, and we would've felt bad dumping her on any of our friends, so we took her with, where I could engage in the wound care regimen and give her antibiotics. Traveling with a cat -- especially a sick kitten -- takes a lot more energy and planning than a normal trip. But it was a fun trip, and the kitten is excruciatingly cute.

Of the fun, we rented a Toyota Matrix for the drive. We really liked this car. It might be even better than our previous favorite, a Toyota Rav4. Its fuel economy was impressive (it's rated 32 mpg on the highway, but our number was closer to 35), it was smooth and quiet and comfortable to ride in, and it was surprisingly roomy. The seats were nice, the stereo was good, and it was well-designed in lots of little ways. We originally picked up a Dodge Caliber, which we were happy with when we got it; then it developed a mechanical problem, and we had to trade it for the Matrix, which is a similar vehicle. And the Matrix was a step up in every way. Plus, they're cheaper. Seriously, the Caliber should come with a factory-installed bumper sticker that says, "I didn't do my research!"

GenCon was a lot of fun, too. Laura got me a four-day pass for my birthday, and I spent pretty much all of my non-working time at the 'con. Along with the games, GenCon also features a writer's conference, and that's where I spent my time. This year's guest writers included Jean Rabe, Pat Rothfuss, Anton Strout, Richard Lee Byers, Paul Genesse, Elizabeth Vaughan, and a dozen or so others. They offered seminars on world building in speculative fiction, on selling your novel to a publisher, on a pile of different subgenres, about the mechanics of writing. I enjoyed all of them. And, I've gotta say: if you get a chance to see Pat Rothfuss on a panel, I highly recommend it; he's an interesting guy and a good speaker. And, he and I share the tendency to answer a question with a story. I've always wondered if it was amusing or annoying for the people around me. If I do it anywhere near as well as Pat Rothfuss, it's amusing....

I'm not entirely sure the gaming crowd is still my crowd. I walk through the show floor at GenCon every year, and it's becoming increasingly apparent that I'm out of the loop on a lot of this stuff. I've never played a collectible card game; I've never LARP'ed; I haven't played a real Dungeons and Dragons campaign for almost twenty years. I'm even years behind on my video gaming; I've never played MMORPGs, or online multiplayer games, or even Counterstrike. On the plus side, I'm probably close to the median age at GenCon; there are a lot of folks older than I am, who are still playing tabletop games and still painting miniature battlemechs. Still, whether it's my crowd anymore or not, I still have a blast wandering around and seeing what's new.

So, that's been my life for the last few weeks. Now I'm trying to settle into a regular routine that includes writing....

Sunday, August 02, 2009

Yet another cute thing Laura does

My wife has designed lights for a huge number of shows, set to a wide variety of music. So there's a lot of music which she associates with a show she's lit. So, every so often, she'll be listening to the radio, singing along under her breath with a song, and suddenly the lyrics turn into production notes. Today, a Beatles song came on the radio, and the lyrics she sang looked something like:
"Get back, get back lights GO, get back to where you once belonged."
She does this with classical music, too; it sounds something like:
"hmm hmmmm, dim da de dumm scrim out, lights go, hmm da de de dummm...."

I'm not entirely sure she realizes she's doing this, which makes it even cuter.