Monthly Archives: October 2004

I Could Go On

Here’s something I learned this week. When someone goes to vote in the USA, there may be people at the polling station who can question your right to vote, voting challengers. Anybody can do this. It’s not an official position. Imagine. You’re on the electoral roll, you’ve lined up to get your ballot paper and just as you’re about to collect it, someone comes up and says to an official, “No, this person can’t vote because…”

This law allowing challengers to get in someone’s face and stop them voting differs in each state. In Ohio, for instance, a challenge may be made on the basis of citizenship, residence or age (ie. too young to vote). It’s then up to the official in charge of the polling station whether you can vote on an ordinary ballot or a provisional ballot which is then sent off elsewhere to have your legal status checked and confirmed.

The official presiding at the polls can throw a challenger out if they interfere with the voting process by issuing too many challenges or slowing down the process. But, remember everything is politicized in the USA, so whoever’s running the polling station may have a vested interest in allowing partisan challenges. It’s all up to that official in charge at the polling station.

In some states, this whole challenge thing can be an effective form of intimidation and harrassment, enough to put people off going to the polls in the first place. Think about who’s in charge of the polling stations in some of the southern states where black voters are predominantly Democrat… Of course, that doesn’t mean the Democrats won’t try it too, if they can, and Secretary of State Colin Powell has already invited international observers to monitor this presidential election.

Meanwhile, the Kerry campaign is providing teams of observers and lawyers of its own to ensure laws are upheld on November 2nd. You can’t help thinking that these sorts of ideas–electoral challengers–may have all been a good and practical idea once upon a time but now we’re living in the 21st century. It’s the information age. Computer technology. The internet? Facts like citizenship, residence and age should all be easily checkable at the time of registering to vote, let alone at the polling station.

Claim, counterclaim. Checks, balances. Passions and opinions. This is the US Presidential election. It’s like being stuck in traffic for weeks and discovering the reason is everyone’s stopped to gawp at an incredibly pointless and preventable car wreck.


First off you have to understand something. America is big. Now you think you already know that, but if you’re in the UK it’s hard to grasp. America is big. So when the high school football team plays an away game, they travel a long way. Sometimes it’s like going from England to somewhere in Europe to play another school. Therefore it makes sense to play several away games in row. And that’s why they have homecoming. It’s the return of the football team.

Laura took me to her high school reunion at the weekend. Glenbrook South. This was the 20 year reunion held on a Saturday to coincide with the homecoming parade down the main street of Glenview, which looks to me like a beautiful suburb of Chicago. Tree-lined streets with proper shops (not just boutiques), bars and restaurants down the main street and a recently re-done train station for light rail (commuter transit).

We met up with a few of Laura’s former classmates on Friday at Grandpa’s, a pub with an Irish feel but without the over-the-top theme pub thing. There were a few hundred people in Laura’s graduating class and many of them came to the pub. They smiled hopefully as they scanned the pub for long-lost friends and, to my amusement, I found that simply smiling back meant they would come over and shake my hand. Yes, I was that long-lost friend they never knew.

I know. I am a bad bunny. Obviously the accent was a dead give-away though, so I couldn’t string them along enough to insinuate myself into any reunion photo’s. I did get to meet a real live former homecoming queen and I can report that she was actually, well, a normal friendly person in her late thirties. I don’t why I thought former homecoming queens would be anything other than normal except for the fact I’ve watched too much television. Okay, she was normal with a degree and an MBA. They really value the whole education thing out here.

Saturday, we watched the parade. There were three bands, all of whom played well, by which I mean they played in tune–none of that painfully flat horn section I remember from filming in UK schools. There were some floats, including a large papier-mache dinosaur, animated by kids pulling on ropes and enlivened by sampled sound effects played by more kids on the back of a pick-up truck ahead of them. And there were a lot of sports teams, more than one squashed into their parents’ soft-top sports car. Or in some cases, into their own soft-top sports car.

On the whole, it was very small town America, like I was expecting from the movies and TV, and I liked that about it. It was regular folks living their lives. The homecoming queen and her attendants were the only major difference from the films. Not so much the girls, but the fact they were just sitting in the back of cars with their partners, waving and wearing sweats and slacks. I was expecting big floats carrything them with them all teeth and ballgowns. Well, it was a chilly day, so you can’t blame them, even if it wasn’t freezing Chicago-style–ie. cold enough to make body parts burst and fall off. It was just chilly. About 30.

We went over to the high school next–Glenbrook South–for a tour of the building. Welcome back, Pointers. The first place we went was the amphitheatre. Yes, a full sized theater, with fixed seating, raked, and a stage with a hydraulic section that moves out for an orchestra. 2700 kids go to this school and most of their parents have money. I commented to one guy about this. He said, “Yep. We were a bunch of spoiled brats.” Spoiled smart brats. With lots of money. I gave him one of those ‘You should be my client’ smiles.

Our tour took us through the radio and TV studios. This is the high school TV studio. Before they start applying to go to film school. Can I have my education again, please? Oh, and they had a brand new Apple iMac G5. The one that’s just a flat screen with the computer inside. They only came out last month. We came out into the art block, walking past the Jewellery Studio as we entered the humanities wing. Upstairs, we could see the football field, soccer pitches and the student parking lot (yes), and around to the science wing.

Corridors were lined with lockers like every TV series you’ve ever seen. The dining room was a generic American TV school dining room. It all lived up to my media-biased expectations as we checked out the basketball court (on a par with Dacorum Sports Centre court where national UK games used to be played), and finally we ended up in an aircraft hanger where they obviously built Zeppelins. This, our guide pointed out, was home to the indoor running track and various other sporting facilities including about a dozen more basketball courts.

In short, it’s a big school. A nice big school. A very very nice big school. I should mention that I discovered that winning isn’t everything, by the way, for the average American kid. You are expected to take part and there’s a whole thing about “Earning a letter” which is the big letter that’s sewn on to the baseball (or other) jackets. To get ‘lettered’ high-schoolers need to be members of the band or take part in a sport. Not everyone wins but everyone who takes part can get their letter. I guess that’s kind of like getting a blue ribbon at university level in the UK.

Oh, and I learned that ‘varsity’ level sports refers to high school sports played by the best teams from each school, usually the seniors but it can include younger members of the school if they’re really good. Varsity is not the same as university sports, which was confusing. And, oh again. Not every school is like Glenbrook South. But a lot of them are.

So that was my American high school experience. For now, at least. Until Jack and Sam are a bit older. Laura and I went to the reunion and dance in the evening, although there wasn’t much dancing but, hey, there was a free bar and I didn’t know anyone. I built a fine rapport with the barman, downed more vodka tonics than I can remember and somehow seem to have collected a lot of blue and yellow mardi gras beads…

Sidewalk Social Scientist

All our CD’s have now been ripped into the computer and songs spew out at random thanks to the miracle of iTunes. Right now it’s Blondie. 11.59 from Parallel Lines. Which reminds me of Italy and the school trip where I learned to drink beer at the tender age of 15.

We discovered The English Pub which made pizza in a brick oven just outside Venice and served pints of lager. Our history teacher eventually discovered us, all inebriated, swinging on the lounge chairs. He duly rounded us up and shepherded us back to the hotel, where we ran amok and the hard kids painted Paul Jarrett’s glasses with toothpaste as he slept.

I found the hapless Jarrett character asleep in the hotel lobby the next morning. I’d taken the precaution of not sharing a room with the mental cases but was rooming with the Mods, Paul and Andrew, who wore green parkas all the time and listened to The Who. There was one other guy too. Anyone? Anyone? Bueller? No, the name’s gone.

Anyway, we hauled our hungover selves into the tour bus…

Full Week

In the past seven days, I’ve been handed the secret of getting free beer at a rock concert, appeared on National Public Radio, learned swing dance from a Russian and taken my first steps towards being a motion graphics guru.

Sunday: Sumo East and West at the Michigan Theater. An opportunity to meet filmmakers, friends of Nancy’s who have made a feature length documentary. I liked the filmmakers more than the film. Tara, who is front of house manager, sorted me out a staff card after I said the door person always gives me a funny look when I just walk in there. Back home, I started my new After Effects training book intending to work through every chapter until I am a guru.

Monday: Brian Wilson, also at the Michigan. Last of the Beach Boys. We always play the Beach Boys when we go to California (Laura has a very eclectic taste in music). So, Brian Wilson. Full house. Three middle aged dudes bobbed their balding heads in time to the music in perfect unison one row in front of us while their teenage son tried to hide inside the hood of his fleece. Somehow they kept it up for the whole show but the kid left in the interval.

Can’t decide which bit I liked best, although free beer thanks to flashing the new staff card was a bonus. Good Vibrations was awesome, with that combination of rock, electronica, close harmony singing and the wall of sound quality. Brian’s new stuff from the new album was “out there”. We bought the album anyway, although it wasn’t as immediately appealing as the David Byrne latest.

Brian looked completely spaced, like his band was holding him together, but they still gave an excellent two hour show. Surfing USA was a tear to the eye moment, not overdone, not schmaltzy but like you can understand this nation if only fleetingly, just for that moment. Oh, and they sang Barbara Ann, which is probably only funny to me and my sister because our neighbour in Mayflower Avenue used to be Barbara Chan. Guess what we used to sing. I texted Elizabeth to share this high point with her.

Tuesday: Laura at WBO dinner, me taking Sam to soccer then keeping boys from killing each other and stressing out (them, not me) yet still doing their homework. They really do seem to get into the whole “performance art” thing whenever possible. Jack was in full Drama Queen mode having left his homework at his dad’s yet he’s still unable to drag himself away from TV long after to pay attention to his problem. Problem resolved by getting him phoning around friends to get the questions.

Wednesday: Leadership Ann Arbor, first day induction at Chamber of Commerce. Talked to loads and loads of people. Network network network. Out for dinner in the evening at The Earle, one of A2’s finest restaurants. We used one of our few remaining ‘newcomer’ coupons and were suitably well fed.

Thursday: woke up to the sound of me. Yes, you’ve all said, “He’s got the face for radio.” Well, now it’s proven. Russ and I recorded Cinema Chat, the weekly NPR film feature, with host David Fair a couple of weeks ago and my program went out this week. I liked me more at the beginning of the show than me at the end. I was more dynamic to start with, then meandered a bit (much like these blogs) although I didn’t lose the plot entirely.

Thursday evening was the visual effects guru talk at Rackham auditorium at the UofM, mentioned elsewhere. Rackham interior looks very much the learned academic institution, by the way. An instant movie set. Marble floors everywhere, art deco touches and the urinals are so classy, they have a pedal to flush them. Which is nice.

Friday: private swing dance lesson in Saline (pronounced “Celine”) with waif-like Russian instructor, Adriana. Learned three-step, three-step, rock step and some turns. Still don’t feel confident about this new dance as I’m totally concentrating on my footwork and trying to keep that in time to the music but it’s a start. Should feel fitter, sleep better and all those good things if we keep it up.

Presidential debate in the evening. Bush and Kerry looking far more alert. It was style versus substance as Bush played to the bread and circuses crowd, Kerry appealed to the intellectuals. Yes, they’re all politicians, therefore they must be lying. One blog noted that Bush came across as surly and spoiled. Funny, that’s how the rest of the world sees the USA. Funnier, most people here aren’t actually like that at all. It’s not funny at all, is it.

Which reminds me, our new wheelie bin was delivered by the city this week. It came with instructions. And I don’t mean a sheet, I mean a manual. What kind of people need an instruction manual to operate a wheelie bin? Really. You can see why so many people in this country have problems selecting a leader.

Saturday: Sam soccer game in the morning. Spoke to Colin, former Brit who just became US citizen so he can vote against GW. Colin thinks dancing is just for dating. I disagree. Sam’s team lost but it was a good match and only one goal in it, ending 3-2.

U of M football–The Wolverines–versus Minnesota in the afternoon. Wolverines won with new freshman quarterback, Chad Henne, and there was much rejoicing. Hard to believe how big this sport is here, college football that is, when the kids are so young. They really are just kids, some of them were only in high school last year.

Swing dance at the Pittsfield Grange in the evening. Another lesson beforehand, not private this time and no Russian. Instructor got us doing more of the three-step thing, then taught the timing of leading (which is good to know) and then kind of dropped the three-step thing so it all becomes shuffling but keeping the rock step. Rock step seems to be the key to swing. We danced for a good two hours or more, until my legs ached. Various speeds, various songs. Can’t help counting the beats in Russian accent now.

Sunday: legs ache a bit. Finished second chapter of AE book, feels like I’m make some kind of progress. Went round the corner to see Will Smith do the I, Robot thing on the big screen. Not much there from the Asimov books. On the other hand, it was a reasonable action movie and, frankly–aside from the famous ‘three laws of robotics’–Asimov wrote a lot of boring crap. No wonder they changed it.

House is looking particularly beautiful as the trees change colour and provide this red, gold and green backdrop. Squirrels chatter and continue to gorge themselves on our windfalls. Next weekend: Chicago for Laura’s high school reunion. I’m looking forward to this, for many reasons, not least of which is the nosiness factor of seeing inside US schools and comparing to many many movies. There’s also a homecoming parade, football game and dancing. In Russian, natchwarly.

Take The Blue Pill

So, this evening we were out at a talk given by John “DJ” Des Jardin, visual effects supervisor on The Matrix sequels. We had a wee drinkie before we went…

DJ’s talk was excellent. He gave lots of good information to the students at the UofM, illustrated with plenty of slides, DVD clips and videotape showing stages of the production process.

I managed to get in three (or was it five?) questions at the end. What were the main things I discovered, you’re wondering. First, the concept artist has a key role–the main role, in fact–in how a film finally appears, visually. I kind of new that but it’s interesting to me. The Wachowski brothers found their concept artist, Geof Darrow, through their background in writing comics.

Second, they do render more than is actually needed. But not a lot. The computer artists create a few extra frames at each end of the shot (handles) but these are only 8-12 frames. The whole film is edited using pre-visuals–rough renderings of the animations which show the movement but not the final look. This lets the director(s) work out the timing for shots and avoids excessive, time consuming and therefore expensive, rendering.

Third, musicians are brought in at an early stage. Once the pre-vis edits are done, in fact. This gives them lots of time to work on their part, that whole emotional thang, while the art department renders. Some of the shots took two years to figure out how to create and then render.

Laura asked if they consider themselves artists, drawing a comparison with Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow (which is visually far more beautiful than The Matrix). I think she was trying to get DJ to differentiate between art and technique. The Matrix sequels used a lot of CGI rendering that built itself, with computer algorithms creating cities and motion capture characters laid over AI.

Is it art? Or is it simulation? Or perhaps a little of both? We only got a little way down that subject, but it was still an interesting talking point. Oh, and some of the students wanted to ask questions too.

Finally, I just had to ask, as diplomatically as possible, “Um, why did the third film suck so badly?” DJ laughed and defended it faithfully, referring to the Zen character of the whole story. I’m not sure I buy into that. After nearly six hours of building a committment to a set of characters, I’m not sure I can grasp them being snatched away from me. But DJ said that’s life and maybe it would have been received differently if there hadn’t been 9/11.

“In the end, it’s about the fact we have to live together. We have to find a way to co-exist.” Well, okay, yes. That is real life. That’s what it’s all about. I’m not sure if it’s what we go to the movies for, but it’s plausable. The debate continued with students joining in. I’m left thinking, it’s true in life but is it true in movies? And is there art in simulation?


The most important issue facing the world today is NOT weapons of mass destruction. It’s not terrorism in any way, shape or form. Nor is it jobs. Or health care. No, it’s not gay marriage either. It’s global warming.

No matter what else they do or say in their political careers, two leaders have actually taken some steps to do something about it. Kudos to Tony Blair and Arnold Swarzenegger.

Resident Filmmaker

Somehow I’ve been adopted as the filmmaker in residence at the Michigan Theater. Apart from the obvious blagging my way into film screenings and running Cinema Slam, I’ve discovered it gives me unprecedented access to the national filmmaking community. Which is, of course, a Good Thing.

This afternoon, for example, I went to see a preview of Imelda, a documentary about Imelda Marcos, wife of the former Filipino dictator. Now I have to say, I’m not big on documentaries and this one was no exception. Imelda won the prize for Best Cinematography at Sundance this year. Imelda taught me a lot about the Filipines. It was kind of interesting, it was kind of pretty. The subject was clearly on another planet but, what can you do? Many people will like this film. I still nodded off a couple of times. Three, in fact. I just don’t care that much about barking mad rich people and Imelda didn’t make me care.

The reason I went, however, was because there was a Q&A after with the award-winning cinematographer, Ferne Perlstein. And that actually was worth it. Ferne was far more interesting than the film, in my not-so-humble opinion. Directors of photography have lots of interesting stories and Ferne was no exception. I introduced her to Mike Williamson, a local DP who has shot two features in the past year. Mike has helped me shoot the latest Ascalon Films short, Serial Dating, which we’re currently in the process of editing. All in all, the after-film bit was better than the film.

Last week I was at the Michigan to see a special student preview of Mr 3000. Both the screenwriters and the executive producer were University of Michigan graduates (or alumni, in the local vernacular). Mr 3000 was pretty cool, especially as I now understand most of the rules of baseball. And, as with Imelda, the screenwriters and producer stood up afterwards and took questions, which was very insightful. For example, they said you need friends who don’t all say nice things about your script, but who say honest things. And they said Hollywood is the centre of the film universe.

Afterwards, Lee the theater marketing director gave me bags of goodies to give to them as a thank you for coming. Bear in mind, I should have been canvassing for my next career move and this was a gift of an opportunity. So I went up to each of them in turn. First the producer… He’s talking to a student who’s clearly a family friend. Then I recognize a student behind him who I know has made a really cool film. “Do you want to get past?” he asks and I think, “Shit, I’ve blown it.” Nothing clever to say, I just do the decent thing and hand over the goodies.

It wasn’t the same story a few weeks ago, though. Lee emailed to say a new film was premiering at the Michigan and to ask if I would mind coming down to take a few pictures of the producer. There would be free drinks. I emailed yes immediately. Then I looked up imdb to check out the career of the producer in question. Tom Hulce. Yes, the artiste formerly known as Amadeus. I ran off a copy of a film treatment and a DVD of The Car. Two large gins and very good screening later, I put both of my offerings things in his hand.

Hey, who knows if he ever looked at either of them. It’s Tom Hulce, you know? I remember meeting Ridley Scott years ago after a screening of Black Rain which I was reviewing for the Watford Observer. I’ve always kicked myself for not just throwing in the journalism shtick and asking for an unpaid internship. You know, it’s Ridley Scott. How often do you get to meet Ridley Scott? “Hi! I’m a really big fan of your work. I’d just like to say, thank you. Thank you for setting a standard.” He shook my hand. “Thanks.” Oh, good grief. But the ground didn’t open up and swallow me, so here I am.

Here I am. And right now I’ve got a stack of scripts and films to watch sitting right here on my desk. No doubt the creators of these things are wondering if they’re ever going to be watched. And, no, generally I’ve just been too busy to take a look. Much like Mr Hulce, I suspect. But honestly, I meant to look really. And I will. If you keep putting stuff out there, keep meeting the right people, keep working at it, as long as what you’ve got is good, then eventually the law of averages has to work in your favour. Or favor, as they say here.

You know what I mean.