Saturday, March 22, 2014


His actual name was Carl Bokmanski, but the kids didn’t care. One of them saw him reading in the corner of the playground and changed it to Bookmanski. It might as well have been a legal change because it stuck. For years he was plagued with variations: Bookwormski, Bookboy, and finally Bookman.

By the time his frat-boy boss nicknamed him Bookman, he had given up. Some of his coworkers were genuinely interested in what he was reading, but most ignored him or mocked him behind his back. Carl could easily classify most people into either of these two categories.

His last roommate had fallen into the second category. When he moved in, the living room was filled with boxes of his books, and they had argued. Carl finally compromised on a storage room, where a majority of his collection would reside.

He spent a miserable year ferrying books between the apartment and his storage room. When the lease finally ended, he swore to never have a roommate again.

Now Carl and his collection resided in a 500 square foot studio. What he couldn’t fit there went into a storage room two floors up, which he turned into a private library. Some people collected action figures, wine, cigars, and guns, he had told his former roommate. How was this any different?

The roommate had responded by calling him a hoarder, a phrase that Carl found insulting. Hoarders collected old newspapers and junk. They never sold anything. Carl was a frequent seller at the local bookstores. He was also a frequent buyer.

Books in his collection were like his pets. He paid attention to them, kept them in good condition, and kept accurate records of their value. While his rating system contained standard factors like page condition and cover quality, it also included smell and likeability.

Like pets, some of his books wanted his attention, some were indifferent, and others were downright hostile. He kept the unlikeable books in a locked case in the far left corner of the storage room.

He occasionally tried to read these books, but the contents and the smell of these books was vile. They usually came from antique stores or estate sales. The owners (for reasons they would never explain) seemed happy to part with them regardless of age or edition.

After a bad day at work, he would escape to his reading chair and lose himself in a book. For Carl, reading was also a sensory experience. He liked the feel of the spine and cover in his hands, the smell, and the feel of the pages brushing his fingertips.

Today was one of those bad days. Chip (his frat boy boss), had been particularly aggressive. His new edict was a security policy that banned all personal items (especially those containing paper) from workspaces. His eyes were fixated on Carl as he explained it in the morning meeting.

Carl didn’t argue because he knew it wouldn’t accomplish anything. Instead, he grabbed a banker’s box, assembled it, and packed up the books that he kept on the shelf above his desk.

Chip slapped him hard on the back. “Way to be a team player Bookman! I didn’t think you could work without books.”

“I’ll manage.” Carl muttered and sat at his desk, which seemed naked, and forced himself to work.

The other employees had a harder time packing up their tchotchkes and personal photos. Martha, his cube neighbor, had threatened to quit and/or talk to human resources twice an hour for the remainder of the day.

His first visit to the break room confirmed his suspicions. The other employees blamed him. He endured two minutes of hateful stares and upraised middle fingers before he took his coffee outside to the smoking area.

Once home, he visited the storage room. He needed a good escape. The book had to be unique.

He spent an hour browsing through the shelves in his apartment and then the ones in his storage room.

He couldn't get it out of his head. His coworkers were happy to see him pack up his books. They were no different from the kids on the playground. He hated them.

And then he heard it. The humming was low at first, but it was coming from the chest in the left corner.

Almost without thinking, he crossed the room, fished out his keys, and opened the chest. Which of the books was doing this? He touched each one and set aside the ones that weren't right.

Near the bottom of the chest, there was a book he had forgotten about. It was bound in red leather and had been one of his first acquisitions. He touched it and was rewarded with a gentle shock.

This was it. He picked it up and opened it. The humming increased and he could feel it behind his eyes. The smell was rich and musty. It hinted at something impossibly old. Why he had put this book in the chest? He couldn’t remember and didn’t care.

He tried to read it, but the words were in another language that he didn't recognize. The illustrations were macabre, but had a dark beauty that he appreciated.

It called to an older part of him and he responded by lightly touching the words on each page. As he touched the words, he became aware of their meaning and they became part of him. He continued reading by touch until exhaustion overtook him and he fell asleep on the floor of the storage room.

He stumbled back to his apartment and showered. As he toweled off, he noticed that the skin on his hands felt different. It was drier somehow than the rest of him. He touched his chest with his fingertips. The texture on his fingertips had definitely changed. He decided to ignore it. It was probably due to stress at work. 

His alarm went off in the bedroom. 

If he didn't leave soon, he would be late for work. Chip had it in for him and this would give him the perfect opportunity. It didn't seem to matter anymore. The job was a dead end and he would find something else if he lost it. 

He was suddenly tired. Still wrapped in a towel, he stumbled to the bed and passed out.

He woke up around eight hours later with a craving for the book. He put on his clothes and went back to the storage room to retrieve it.

The hum had changed, grown more powerful. He closed his eyes and let it wash over him. Clutching the book in both hands, he ran back to his apartment and collapsed into his reading chair.

The smell had changed too. He held it closer to his face and inhaled deeply. It was rust, blood, tears, and bone. He felt at home in it, connected.

No question about it. The book was home. Carl never wanted to leave.

Chip was working in his garage when he heard a noise coming from the unlit corner near the back door.
“Chip, I’ve come for you.” The voice rasped like old leaves blowing across concrete.
“Who’s there?”
“I haven’t been gone that long and you've already forgotten me.”

Carl emerged from the shadows and Chip nearly screamed.

“I’m doing much better Chip. I have a new job and I don’t need to work for you anymore.”
Chip was shaking hard to enough to rattle his teeth.
“You’re an ignorant man Chip, but I can fix that. All you need is a little knowledge.”

He reached for Chip with long, leathery fingers. This time Chip did scream, but it didn’t last for long.

Chip was not much of a meal, more like amusement park food than anything else. For the moment, Carl felt sated but knew that he would need to feed again soon.

He finally felt like a whole person. He finally belonged. Carl blinked his new eyes, one on either side of his head-spine and grinned happily behind pages made flesh.

Monday, February 24, 2014

Closed Book

You're the book that I closed.
The story was hopeful and ended bitterly.
You tore your pages in spite of me.
I stopped reading to repair you.
I stopped writing when you hid.
The story was over before I gave you away.
I name you Thief of Years.
May you find solace on another shelf.

You're the book that I want to read.
Worn, dog eared, and taped.
Your scars a roadmap of your journey here.
I can't put you down.
It's a thrill to write in you.
The story isn't finished.
You have no title.
But you're welcome to my shelf anytime you visit.

Friday, March 11, 2011

A Book That You'll Never Forget

"From a Name to a Number" is a book that you'll never forget. It is the story of a Jewish teenager who received his education in five concentration camps. After he was liberated, he found himself without a home, country, or immediate family. Most of "From a Name to a Number" is the story of where he went and how he lived after his liberation.

Alters story is tragic and inspirational. He refuses to hate the German people for the violence and cruelty that the Nazis inflicted on him and his family. If Alter can refuse to hate, we have no excuse.

The immensity and deliberate, industrialized cruelty of the Holocaust are difficult to comprehend. We know it happened because the Nazis kept meticulous records. These death camp balance sheets are evidence of an inhuman cruelty that should never be allowed to happen again.

Despite the historical evidence (films, mass graves, pictures, balance sheets, and historical sites), holocaust deniers tell others that it didn't happen. They do this to justify their own racist beliefs or because they despise the attention that society gives to victims. As the Holocaust's survivors succumb to old age, the number of Holocaust deniers is increasing.

An increasing number of media personalities will routinely blame victims or refer to minorities as racists or Nazis. They do this because they perceive victimhood as power, which they crave. If we allow hate mongers to call themselves victims, we do a disservice to past, present, and future victims of violence.

Repeated use of the word "Nazi" on political television shows is a deliberate attempt to change its meaning. If we allow this word to be watered down until it is becomes slang for "nationalization" or "jerk", the Holocaust will be harder for future generations to understand.

Survivors of genocides such as the Holocaust or the Khmer Rouge retell their stories even though it hurts them to do so. They show us their physical and emotional scars to teach us that hatred and genocide can happen anywhere.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

What happens when we "protect what is ours" ?

Those who equate government assistance with socialism are deluded. Americans help each other whenever taxes are taken out of their paychecks.

I have created a list of services that would not exist if every American decided to "protect what is theirs". This includes paying taxes and giving money away.

1. Homeless shelters
2. Prisons
3. State hospitals 
4. Subsidized student loans 
5. Scholarships or grants 
6. Veteran’s benefits 
7. Social security 
8. Medicare 
9. Government subsidies to businesses of all sizes 
10. Bailouts for "too big to fail" businesses 
11. Public education system
12. Police and firefighters 
13. U.S. Postal Service 
14. NASA 
15. Free meals from your parents from age 1 to age 16
16. S.S.I.
17. The military
18. Unemployment 
19. Public libraries

The point of this post is to point out how silly an ideology can be. If Americans stand together, they are united. If they divide into ideological groups, they fall.

Above all, what we need is a balanced view of the government's role. My view as a Moderate is as follows:

Government should help individual citizens who cannot help themselves. This includes college education, unemployment, and healthcare. If tax money is paid to fund these three services, income levels and quality of life will increase for all Americans. When a person is healthy, their productivity goes up. When a person has a college education, their income level increases. Right now, income levels increase after college bills are paid. If taxes paid for 100% of college education, income levels would rise faster.

Government should limit or eliminate corporate welfare. Corporations are not people and should not have the rights afforded to people.

Government should be accountable for every dollar it spends. There should be a rubric or criteria that spending is measured against. Spending that doesn't meet the criteria should not occur. There is no reason that Americans should not be able to view government spending (and its effects) on a website. Government contractors should not be paid for work they have not done.

Government should avoid excessive economic tinkering. This includes bailouts and tax cuts for the wealthy. The Federal Reserve should handle economic tinkering. Government spending during a recession should be directed to areas where it has a long-term economic effect (job creation, education).

Government has no business regulating the personal life of a citizen unless that person is harming themselves or others. I'm specifically talking about laws that ban marriage between same sex couples and criminalize end of life decisions. Banning gays from the military also falls into this category.

Environmental regulation impacts the economy and public health. The ideal environmental regulations should balance environmental impact and economic impact.

And last but not least...

Lobbyists need to be banned from Capitol Hill. When lobbyists influence members of congress, they steal influence from voters.

Monday, January 4, 2010

My two cents on Avatar

I was hoping to like this movie as much I like Aliens (my favorite Cameron movie). Avatar is nothing like Aliens. It is most similar to Titanic and True Lies, which are my least favorite Cameron films. These three films have many of the same weaknesses. Their plots were drawn out in crayon and their characters were cardboard. The characters seem as if they were only created to occupy a carefully constructed setting.

Good actors, such as Sigourney Weaver and Stephen Lang, were wasted on stereotypical characters and given bad dialogue. I didn’t know C.C.H. Pounder was in this film until I saw the credits.
Avatar could have been much better if someone had worked at building a decent screenplay. This was really apparent in the Giant Tree destruction scene. This scene was moving, but it didn’t affect most of the human characters. It was also a lost opportunity for Ribisi’s corporate character to transform.

I didn’t regret leaving the art house and seeing this with an audience. I paid $10 to ride a new type of rollercoaster, which is what this film was. I got my money’s worth, but this is not something that I want to re-watch.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Will the long tail wag the dog?

Given a choice between the Paranormal Activity and Avatar models of filmmaking, Hollywood is likely to make more Avatars. Whether the long tail will wag the dog is still in question. There was a 2008 Harvard Business School study which proved that the importance of blockbusters is magnified by the Web. It would be foolish to dismiss this study because it proves the power of web marketing. I think that the market will fracture as the web allows niche movies to increase their dominance. Consumer attention spans and involvement could eventually limit growth. The keys to success in the long tail of movies are marketing and competitive advantage. Movies that cost under 500,000 can be shown on any website that plays video because there is no risk to free distribution. We'll be lucky to see an Avatar-sized movie on the web due to the risk of piracy.

(This was my response to the title question when it was posted on Facebook. I'll be expanding on this in the near future.)

Friday, December 18, 2009

Mise-en-scène in "Black Rider"

Mise-en-scène is a phrase often used to describe film production. It translates to “setting the stage” or “setting the scene”. It describes the elements within a frame of film that affect the look and feel of the movie. When mise-en-scène is used correctly, a movie appears to have continuity and the world portrayed within the film is believable. This paper will describe the mise-en-scène of Black Rider’s opening sequence, which lasts for 1 minute and 43 seconds. The opening sequence ends when the train arrives at the station.
The setting of a movie shows the viewer the world that the story will take place in. Shooting the film in a natural location, such as the city of Berlin, adds realism, while shooting on a studio set is perceived as less realistic. Studio sets require stronger artistic direction to increase their level of believability.
In Black Rider, the setting of the movie is described in a series of opening shots that are set to music. These shots depict a light rail commuter train as it travels through the city. The audience sees close-ups of trains passing each other, passengers disembarking, close up shots of feet, and customers heading toward the train. These opening shots also depict city life by using jazz music that evokes the dreariness and angst of the city.
Key props support the film’s authenticity and enhance its believability. The key props shown in the opening sequence are the train and the décor of the train station. The train is the most important prop in the opening sequence, while the décor of the train station supports the films believability. The train comes toward the camera in the first frames of the film. The train is also seen rushing past the camera and “snaking” through the city. The shots of the train used in the opening sequence portray it as enormous and dominant. The life of the city seems to flow in, out, and around the train.
Actors create believable characters that the audience can relate to or follow. This is done through acting and directing. The role casting plays is subtle, but important. Black Rider had a diverse cast of unknown character actors and a talented director who worked together to support its realistic tone. The director's role is to help the actors navigate the screenwriter's vision.
If Tom Cruise had been cast as the biker and Denzel Washington as The Black Guy (that's the actual name of the character), this would be a very different movie. No matter how hard Washington or Cruise would try to sink into their roles, the audience would relate Black Rider to their previous films.
A film that excels in all other aspects of mise-en-scène but neglects acting is not perceived as believable. Black Rider’s actors do a fantastic job. They make us believe that they inhabit the cityscape that the audience was introduced to in the opening sequence.
The film frame registers smaller movements than the theater stage. As a result, actors who are versed in theater’s broad movement style train to use small gestures and micro-expressions for film. At the train stop, two girls are talking and laughing. When one of them looks up at a boy who is standing nearby, her expression informs the audience that she has a crush on him. Her head movement and facial expression portrays joy, infatuation, and embarrassment. The actress was able to communicate three emotions in a scene that lasted for two seconds.
Actors wear costumes that match the culture and roles of their characters. In a 10-minute short film, there is no time to learn each characters background. The costumes, culture, and preferences of the characters are “coded” into their costumes.
At the train stop, several types of characters are introduced. The boy wearing a soccer jacket is a student athlete or sports fan. A grey haired man wears a golf cap, casual shirt, and thick glasses. This costume identifies him as a retiree. He stands near a woman in a business suit who holds a briefcase. Her earrings are tightly wound hoops that match her tense expression. The audience can infer that she is both impatient and unapproachable. Her costume and acting combine to enhance the impersonal “feel” of the city that is being communicated throughout the opening sequence.
In the film noir genre, makeup was often used to express the nature of a characters personality. A nervous or unbalanced character would appear to be greasy or unshaven while a femme fatale would wear noticeable makeup that would express her devious intentions and her beauty. A movie that places a high priority on realism uses makeup that is “invisible” to the audience. This is the type of makeup used in Black Rider.
Lighting is one of the most important aspects of mise-en-scène. Expressionistic films use lighting to express a character’s internal mood. Realistic films such as Black Rider use lighting to communicate the “reality” of the setting and characters to the audience. The lighting in the opening sequence is bright, with hot spots and minimal shadows. The audience will believe that they are seeing a bright, sunlit day. This is because they see hot spots, which come from a bright key light (the sun) with a minimal amount of shadows. The shadows that do exist are cast by outdoor structures such as the train stop.
Composition is the method that filmmakers and photographers use to arrange subjects and key props within the frame. To compose the frame correctly, the cinematographer and director must coordinate character blocking and camera angles.             
Pepe Danquart and his cinematographer, Ciro Cappellari, carefully crafted the composition of Black Rider to match the themes and focus of the film. When the characters are shown at the train stop for the first time, the businessmen appear in a low-to-high angle medium close up shot. From this angle they appear to be dominant figures within the city.
The Black Guy and his white friend appear to be equals when they are shown at a table near the train stop. A closer look reveals that the shot is angled so that the white character is closer to the camera and The Black Guy is further away and therefore smaller within the frame. The composition of this shot also favors the white character since he is closer to the camera, and therefore larger than The Black Guy.
In conclusion, mise-en-scène is important because it maintain audience interest in the film and in the world it depicts. In Black Rider, the length of the film increased the importance of cohesiveness and believability because there was no time for flashback scenes or expository dialogue that would have described character motivations and attitudes.

Works Cited
Black Rider. By Pepe Danquart. Dir. Pepe Danquart. Perf. Paul Outlaw. 1993.
Kasdan, Margo. The Critical Eye. (pages 69-96)
Kendall/Hunt Publishing Company, 2008