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Sun, 1 May 2005

Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: How the Sex-Drugs-and-Rock ‘N’ Roll Generation Saved Hollywood

— SjG @ 1:10 pm

Peter Biskind, Simon & Schuster, 1998

This is really only the second book I’ve read on Hollywood, the first being David Niven’s Bring On the Empty Horses. The books are about very different eras, and they are, not surprisingly, very different books. Empty Horses is a raconteur’s reminiscences, a participant’s tales retold with a certain charm and tact, even when dealing with scandal and excess. Easy Riders is a much denser history, more concerned with the facts, and is written with a distinct thesis. There’s another obvious difference, with Niven focusing on the stars and Biskind focusing on the Directors. But there’s deeper stylistic differences as well. Niven’s recountings each have their own arc, segueing into one another, perhaps, but mostly episodic. Biskind’s retelling is much less linear, telling chronologically parallel stories.

I can’t remember when I have read anything that throws such a bewildering quantity of names and facts per page as Easy Riders does. Lacking Biskind’s encyclopedic understanding of the names and interrelations of the people involved, coupled with his tendency to refer to a person by first name, then last name, then nickname, then role (sometimes all in a single paragraph) I was occasionally left confused.

Yet even with this confusion, I thought the book did a remarkable job of telling the tale of the rise and fall of a generation of filmmakers, gave insight into their movies, and even helped explain the Hollywood of today. It also sketches out the attributes required to become a successful director or producer in Hollywood.

Like Empty Horses, Easy Riders left me with a sense of the personalities behind the movies, but, more importantly, gives some texture to the zeitgeist from which the movies sprang.

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Mon, 28 Mar 2005

Photographing Teapots

— SjG @ 9:36 pm

After trying a lot of different approaches, I am now getting close to the results I want when photographing teapots. I figured it would be worthwhile to share my system in the hopes that it’s helpful to someone else, and with the idea I might get some suggestions from others.

First, the goals:

  • A clean image that shows detail of the piece.
  • An image that’s reasonably accurate in color reproduction.
  • An image that gives a little drama to the piece, rather than a cold, clinical look.

The Lighting Equipment:
I’ve tried several approaches. The one that I find best (so far) is not the cheapest approach. It involves about $300 in lighting equipment, not including the cost of any photographic gear.

Teapot Photo Stage
(click for bigger view)

I started with a kit from Table Top Studios. It included a 30″ light tent and a two-light set. I bought a graduated backdrop from another photographic supply house, which I needed to trim to size — Table Top Studios now sells a custom sized backdrop which seems to be ideal. One other word of praise for Table Top — I was facing a deadline, when one of the bulbs burned out. They were extremely helpful and overnighted me a free replacement, so I was able to make the deadline. That made me a loyal customer from here on out.

I set up the tent on a card table in the overstuffed Meier Quagg Library. I installed the nylon sweep, and used clothespins to fasten the graduated backdrop to it. Because the light tent has a lip, I raised the front portion of the sweep using the two-volume Oxford English Dictionary. The 1982 version is perfectly sized; you might want to use something else of the same general shape and size.

Before placing a teapot upon this stage, I metered off of an 18% gray card, oriented vertically. Then, I tried it with a teapot. I did a lot of experimentation, bracketing, spot-metering, etc, and, to my simultaneous delight and dismay, found that for both digital and film, Nikon’s Matrix Metering was spot on for the best exposure. To get the best images, I stopped down to f/11, which necessitated a fairly long exposure time (on the order of a quarter second), which, of course, makes a tripod all the more necessary.

To see how these results compare with my previous efforts, compare:
before to after (obviously, different teapots!)


Fri, 18 Mar 2005

The Destruction of Da Derga’s Hostel

— SjG @ 5:09 pm

anonymous, circa. 1100, translated by Whitley Stokes, read as an e-book from BlackMask.com.

This is a curious old Irish tale, which seems to fall somewhere between standard historical epics and fairy tales. You can still hear quite a little of the oral tradition in its structure, but it also has some surprises. The beginning is very much fairy tale, about how Conaire becomes king, and how he learns of his personal taboos. This portion is mystical and fantastical. It is followed immediately by the tale of how the good king brings peace and prosperity and then, in one grand binge, violates all his taboos. The tale then takes a short detour, setting up the Reavers (the agents of destruction), and giving us their history and descriptions, with each being more terrifying and strange than the previous. After this short detour, we take a very long detour, where these agents of destruction have resolved to destroy Da Derga’s hostel (where the king is spending the night). They review and catalog each individual within the hostel, sparing no details, and their seer predicts how many of the reavers will be slain by each. This is by far the longest section of the tale, and seemed to have been a great opportunity for retellers to toss in their own creative additions. The actual destruction is something of an anticlimax.

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Sun, 20 Feb 2005

The Song of Roland

— SjG @ 2:27 pm

anonymous, circa. 1100, translated by John O’Hagan around 1885, read as an e-book from BlackMask.com.

There are three kinds of war reporting: the first, by journalists who are independent of any side in the conflict, who wander around in harm’s way to report what’s going on; the second, by so-called “embedded” reporters, who are essentially information officers of one of the sides in the conflict; and the third, by the historians and tale-tellers who were not present and who recast any events according to their own studies, prejudices, and opinions. The Song of Roland falls beyond this last sort, and forces us to concede a fourth type of war reporter, viz, the mythologist.

The Song of Roland is a medieval propaganda piece designed to show the nobility of dying for your monarch, especially if it involves taking a few hundred thousand infidels along with you. As is to be expected from a mythic retelling, the noble are absolutely noble, and the base are absolutely base. Interestingly, though, there is a certain nobility amongst the royalty of the infidel enemy (an “Emir of Balaguet” is honored with the statement “were he Christian, nobler baron none,” shortly before meeting his demise).

But the noble Frankish chavaliers are a pretty bad-ass bunch. When slaying this or that infidel knight, they were not content to merely hew them with swords or pierce them with lances, oh no, we are given almost pornographic gleeful descriptions of swords passing through helmets and heads, down through armor and chest, down through the saddle, and splitting the spines of the unfortunate steeds. In case we don’t pick up on the fact that the noble Frankish chevaliers are tough, we get this scene repeated with minor variations nearly a dozen times.

Reading this made me realize that popular narrative hasn’t changed a great deal in the last thousand years. Sure, there have been some localized shifts in values here and there, but The Song of Roland was not unlike the Rambo of its day. The good guys win because they’re Good (and God is on their side), and the bad guys, for the most part, are lance fodder. The spoils of victory have changed somewhat; while Rambo emerges unscathed from the conflict, anxious for his sequel, Roland’s victory is a noble death, the praise of his monarch, and guaranteed entrance to heaven.

It also pointed out how much religion has changed. Christianity seems far less concerned with the glory of martyrdom today, and shies away from the forced conversions for which The Song lauds Charlemagne. The ignorance of the beliefs of the “infidels” certainly remains (witness statements by various Evangelical leaders in the U.S.).

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Sun, 13 Feb 2005

The History of the Thirty Years War

— SjG @ 2:13 pm

Johann Cristoph Friedrich von Schiller (Translated by Rev. A. J. W. Morrison), c. 1793, as published in an e-book at BlackMask.com

The Holy Roman Empire in the early 1600s comprised the Austro-Hungarian hegemony, and, to a varying extents, the numerous small princely holdings that make up what is now Germany and parts of Eastern Europe. The Reformation had been stirring things up for a little over a hundred years, and the religious makeup of the Empire was also quite heterogeneous (although individual states were not). This is the tinder which was consumed by the Thirty Years War, which, by some accounts, resulted in the reduction of Germany’s population by nearly 70%.

I am the first to admit ignorance of history. I was, for example, completely unaware of the Swedish conquest of Europe. I knew that the Thirty Years war had been a bad thing, but was ignorant of the extent to which it devastated the German states. Schiller tells how armies were raised by princes and generals who could not afford to pay the troops, expressly so the armies would plunder and terrorize the population in enemy lands. Yet any land occupied by an enemy army became enemy land, so peasants would bear the brunt of “friend” and foe alike. In many cases, friendly armies had to defend against the citizenry for whom they ostensibly fought. Furthermore, warfare was getting “modern,” with artillery and firearms. A battle between two armies could result in 15,000 deaths in a single day. Coupled with conscription of peasants, sieges against cities, and intentionaly laying waste to fields in order to starve an area and make it impassible to armies for want of supplies, it is a wonder that such brutal warfare could be sustained for as long as it was.

Schiller biases are reasonably clear, he he attempts to give an even-handed presentation. He’ll tell of an individual like Wallenstein or Frederick, and fill the retelling with harsh judgements and criticism, but will always have a short summary of their characters, where he will be full of mitigated praise (e.g., “The virtues of the ruler and of the hero, prudence, justice, firmness, and courage are strikingly prominent features in his character; but he wanted the gentler virtues of the man, which adorn the hero and make the ruler beloved.”) Schiller shows that religion and state were the excuses for the war, but greed, arrogance, ambition, and strategy were its true motivators.

Reading this book left me even more thankful to be living when and where I am, while being keenly aware that this is a very small and privileged bubble in time and region. World-wide, not enough has changed since the Thirty Years War.

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