Read my review on Ausxip.com

Please read my review of Lucy Lawless's performance in "Chicago" at the Hollywood Bowl over at AUSXIP. I would usually publish the review here on In Sequence, but I don't have access to the photographs I need to make the review great. So head on over to the best Lucy Lawless fan site and read it there.

Matching Type

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When I first read George Orwell's novel, 1984--a book that has recently experienced a resurgence--it was as a slim paperback with what seemed like a terrible font. The type was small, spidery and cramped and it lent a claustrophobic feeling to my reading experience. It was as though the type was an extension of the ideas in the book. Although it was aesthetically displeasing, the type actually enhanced the book's presentation.

It's tempting to think the design was not intentional--because why would a publisher waste a designer's time on an individual type treatment for a budget title? Or, at least, that's what we think today, since so many book publishers are now part of huge media conglomerates. We expect attention to craft to be abandoned in favor of profits.

But I read 1984 before the consolidation of media and book publishing occurred. Having spent some time professionally with people who make books, it's easy to imagine a book designer giving thoughtful attention to font choice, even on a budget classic. Book people really care about type--I once worked with an editor who had a special pair of glasses made for the purpose of optimizing the type contrast on the manuscripts he read.

With digital or e-books, typography works differently. I knew e-books were here to stay when I heard the Cute Little Red-Headed Girlfriend open a hardback and announce in frustration, "I can't change my font size!" The ability to change type size may be easier on the eyes, but it also undoes the aesthetic choices intended by the designer. If I had been able to bump up the type on my paperback 1984, I would have lost the sensory experience that teeny type offered me.

Although type size is flexible on e-readers, the font choices available in e-books are often restricted by the display capabilities of the device being used. A book designer may have a very limited range of type styles to choose from when designing an e-book. Readers can sometimess hack their devices to increase the number of fonts available, but that doesn't mean they'll be well matched to the reading material.

For a long time reading books on the web was a terrible experience. Some of this had to with hardware, such as screen technology and refresh rates. Other problems were due to the limitations imposed by designing for the web. Lately I've been interested in responsive typography, a way of fashioning reading experiences that adapts to the viewport of the device in use.

Best practices coming out of usability and human-computer interaction research are also helping designers craft reading experiences that are more suited to the web. Although these experiences represent a step forward for web reading, they are largely shaped by ergonomic concerns and do not reflect the unique content being represented. What would really be interesting would be to see a responsive representation of 1984 on the web that also enhanced the experience of the book.

In an earlier post about the historical figure Erzebet Bathory, also known as the Blood Countess, I mentioned that there were two biographical movies scheduled to come out about her. Between inconsistencies in the historical record and the outrageousness of her legend, I've found it hard to know what to make of Erzebet Bathory, so I was looking forward to seeing these movies.

I've now seen both movies, and they are very different from each other, both in tone and in how they interpret the many legends around Bathory. The one thing the movies do seem to agree on is that Erzebet Bathory was targeted for prosecution due to political intrigue, rather than for crimes actually committed.

Julie Delpy as ErzebetI first watched The Countess, which stars Julie Delpy as Erzebet. I found this movie to be artistically satisfying. It recounts many components of the blood countess legend as fact, but amplifies them in a way that explains Erzebet's motives in a psychologically compelling fashion.

Starting in childhood, we see young Erzebet's penchant for cruelty, as she is encouraged to exercise discipline on her servants. The demonstration of her childhood cruelty paints a realistic portrait of the origins and growth of her psychopathy.

Female vanity is usually cited as the reason why Erzebet Bathory chose to murder hundreds of young women, in the belief that bathing in virgin blood would help her stay young and retain her good looks. Although female vanity is an intriguing part of the story, I've never found female vanity in and of itself to be a strong enough motive for mass murder.

The Countess elaborates on the vanity theme, making Erzebet's need for youthful beauty understandable through a touching depiction of her relationship with a much younger man. Her anguished love fuels a growing anxiety about her looks, which, in her desperation, leads her to adopt the practice of bathing in virgin blood. Quite apart from its role in explaining the Bathory legend, I found the representation of romance between an older woman and younger man to be very affecting.

Further complicating this cross-generational relationship is the existence of an on-again, off-again lesbian affair between Erzebet and a figure from the historical record named Duvulia. In the legends surrounding Erzebet, one finds tales of lesbianism as well as accusations of vampirism. Erzebet Bathory seems to be the inspiration for the lesbian vampire type, a staple of both literature and film.

As far as I can tell from my reading, it's unknown whether Erzebet and Duvulia were romantically involved. In The Countess, Duvulia is portrayed as part of Erzebet's retinue and as an individual considered to have paranormal powers. Duvulia is also portrayed as more in love with Erzebet than Erzebet is with her. These messy romantic entanglements are treated with subtlety and contrast nicely with the arrangements for murder occurring in the background.

One of the successes of The Countess is its consistency of tone. If I had to describe the film succinctly, I would say it's like watching a horror film made for Masterpiece Theater. Although there is genuine gore in the film, the overall mood of restraint gives the film a macabre feel that is very distinctive. If you like horror and Masterpiece Theater productions, you will probably love this movie.

The film Bathory takes a completely different attitude to the legends surrounding Erzebet. Over the course of the movie, the more sensational aspects of the legend are debunked or explained away. What is left is mostly a story of political and religious intrigue, with Erzebet caught between ambitious nobles on the one hand and feuding Catholics and protestants on the other.

The movie suggests that Erzebet may have dabbled in some blood rites under the tutelage of Duvulia, who appears as an older, witch-like figure. We see some young women being carried from the castle and being buried, but it's unclear if they were killed for their blood or if they died while being disciplined in the course of service to their mistress.

As is sometimes true of films that try to represent the course of history, Bathory lacks dramatic shape. Yet, the film seems willing to fictionalize some aspects of the story, because it includes an invented relationship between Erzebet and the artist Caravaggio. The movie does have its moments--the costuming is interesting, though I can't speak to its accuracy, and Anna Friel does a respectable job with Erzebet.

While it may be based on fantasy, The Countess is a much more powerful film than Bathory. The legends may not be true, but The Countess does a fantastic job of explaining why they continue to fascinate.

Have you ever seen a dog catcher?

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Inspired by a dream she'd had, the Cute Little Red-Haired Girlfriend asked me if dog catchers had been common in my area when I was a child. I said no. She'd never seen one either. Why then, the girlfriend asked, were there so many dog catchers in cartoons?

Cartoon dog scooped up in a netShe painted a quick sketch of the character type: drives up in a van, wears a uniform, carries a big net, slams the door of the van on the captured dog or dogs. Of course I remembered many of them. (I also had a brief mental flash of the terrifying child catcher from Chitty-Chitty-Bang-Bang, which I quickly suppressed.)

My first thought was that the dog catcher was somehow related to the animal control officer. Except I mainly associate animal control with wild or rabid animals, not stray dogs. When I lived in North Carolina, I once summoned an animal control officer to remove a bat that had found its way into my apartment.

I decided to look up animal control officer in Wikipedia to see if there was any history of the profession. There was a mention of the role of dog whippers, whose primary duty was "keeping dogs out of churches in 16th- to 19th- century Europe."

Clicking on the term dog whipper brought me to another page, which said the the dog whipper's removal tools were a whip and giant wooden tongs. The entry also mentions that dog whippers sometimes dealt with stray dogs generally, and speculates that they were a precursor to today's animal control officer.

While I can see the connection between 16th- through 19th- century dog whippers and present day animal control officers, it doesn't really address the existence of all those early 20th century dog catchers. When I searched on the term "dog catcher," I found a link to a web page under construction that appeared to belong to a pit bull breeder. From what I can tell, dog catcher doesn't appear to be a current job.

The lack of information about the dog catcher profession leads me to wonder if the dog catcher type is a product of cartoon narrative. Just as Granny often intervened in altercations between Sylvester the cat and Tweety the bird, perhaps the dog catcher was created to intervene in hostilities between dogs and cats.

Do any readers remember real live dog catchers in their area? Any thoughts on the origin of this character?

At Long Last Jodie

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A young Jodie FosterJodie Foster is about my age--she's a few years older, actually--and was an object of extreme fascination for me when I was child. I felt like I could sense that Jodie was a lesbian even before I knew the word "lesbian," and certainly before I ever applied the word to myself.

Other lesbians in my age group have told me the same thing. Some claim their gaydar went off as early as Jodie's appearance as Becky Thatcher in Tom Sawyer. That role was in 1973, which would have made Jodie 11 at the time.

Jodie was in college around the same time I was. And it was through the college connection that I heard that Jodie Foster did, in fact, prefer women. To be more specific, I found out through the greatest gossip source in the country--better even than the formidable gay grapevine. I heard the news through the Yale alumni gossip phone tree. [Edit: I am not a Yale alum. Jodie is, and I know people who went to school with her.]

(Yale alumni are the best gossip source because they encompass so many movers and shakers in all fields. Catch a Yale alum on the phone the day after they've received their alumni news in the mail--when resentment of their peers' accomplishments is at its highest--and you never know what will spill out: news of Presidential affairs, the sexual preferences of a recent Oscar winner, etc.)

If Jodie had chosen to come out after her college years, during the height of the AIDS epidemic, it would have made a huge impact on the gay and lesbian community. Rock Hudson's coming out--reluctant though it was--made a huge difference in how people perceived gays and understood AIDS. It would have also made a significant impact on me, because I was young and there weren't many visible role models for gays and lesbians.

I've always felt that coming out is an individual decision that shouldn't be pushed or prodded. As a practical matter, pushing and prodding usually isn't very successful. But even so, coming out is a difficult decision to make. It's not only an individual decision, it's a political decision--one with tremendous consequences for the individual.

I read a number of articles about Jodie Foster's coming out speech at the Golden Globes that criticized Jodie for not coming out earlier. The general tenor of these pieces was, "Hey, it's not a big deal anymore to come out! You missed the boat, Jodie. You should have done this earlier! Same-sex couples are getting married now!"

Um, no. While some headway has been made in recognizing same-sex relationships, we still have not achieved marriage equality. Housing, employment, health care and personal safety remain areas of vulnerability for gays and lesbians. People forget what a radical act it is to come out. It started as an act of political defiance and it will remain one for as long as stating one's sexual orientation has the potential to endanger one's life and liberty.

I know many people today who are open with friends and family but who are closeted at work. Even in big cities and gay-friendly professions, there remains a glass ceiling for gays and lesbians. When I listened to Jodie Foster's speech, I didn't hear her retiring, I heard her wondering aloud if she was ever going to work in Hollywood again.

People might say, "No way! Look at Ellen! Look at Rosie!" But they are comedians, not leading ladies. There are no out leading ladies, which should tell you something about Hollywood's attitude towards the idea. That's why it's a big deal that Jodie Foster came out. Say whatever you like about how and when Jodie chose to come out, it is a milestone, especially for those in the acting profession.

Michelangelo Signorile wrote that Jodie's speech was "another example of the new way that celebrities are coming out, embarrassed in 2013 to have ever been in the closet and claiming that they've always been out." I'm sympathetic to that argument, but I think Signorile has the wrong target.

It's not just that American's attitudes towards being in the closet or being gay have changed. There is a larger shift happening, and it is only partly generational. People are fed up with being lied to. Lied to for years upon years, about things that are important to them. They don't like the government lying to them, or the media, or Hollywood, or the church, or the military or the banks.

That's what transparency is about, as well as Wikileaks and hactivism and other growing cultural and political phenomena. Unfortunately, many of our institutions are built on the premise of controlled access to information. They decide what you need to know, whether it is the sexual preferences of top money-makers in Hollywood, how your tax dollars are being spent, or what you can access on the Internet.

Deb Baer writes about her anger regarding Jodie Foster not coming out earlier by making a comparison:

I, and so very many others, took a leap of faith and dealt with the consequences. Sure, I wasn't worried about losing $20 million a picture, but it's all relative: I feared that family and friends would abandon me, that I'd get passed over for jobs and promotions, that I'd be the victim of violence, and all the other clich├ęs from the after-school specials.

Actually, it's not all relative. $20 million a picture is $20 million a picture. Money is the reason why Hollywood doesn't want its stars to come out. Coming out is not part of the business model, just as privacy for stars is not part of the business model. Self-exploitation is a big part of how the star system works. With her speech, Jodie appeared to be opting out of a system that encouraged her to lie about her private life for so long.

Traveling back in time

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Old circus car that once held a leopardYesterday the Cute Little Red-Headed Girlfriend and I visited Travel Town, a train museum located in Griffith Park. I had been reminded of the museum by a recent write-up at laist.

I had been to Travel Town many times in my youth, but haven't been back as an adult. When I was a child, Travel Town was a "yesteryear" attraction, featuring trains from decades past. Today, the museum could benefit from a cash injection and a makeover, in order to give the subject and the objects on display the curatorial attention they deserve.

There is a tendency within the national culture to dismiss California's history. The East Coast, with its much longer history, sets the tone by waving away California's claims to culture, longevity or seriousness. During the late 20th century, Californians largely adopted the East Coast's dire opinion of the West Coast. But as we move further into the 21st century, it is becoming more apparent that California has a history and that many elements of it are worth saving.

There's two miniature trains running in Griffith Park, but only one can be found inside Travel Town. This set-up can be confusing, especially if you've never been to the museum before. There's also two websites devoted to Travel Town, one linked up at the top (traveltown.org) and one run by L.A.'s Dept of Recreation and Parks and then another devoted just to the train rides. Make sure you take a thorough look at the map before you go.

The Cute Little Red-Headed Girlfriend and I rode the scaled-down train along the deeply tan hills of Griffith Park. It was a beautiful, bittersweet experience for me. The train reminded me of my mother, who loved to ride the trains at Southern California's many amusement parks. When she was tired of the non-stop activities at Disneyland or Six Flags Magic Mountain, my mom would board the train and circle the park again and again until her interest in "fun" returned.

Hand-powered rail truckSeveral old train cars were open for guided tours, which were led by knowledgeable volunteers. We saw cars in various phases of restoration, which provided fascinating insight into the years-long process of researching the cars and returning them to their original state. Predictably, one of the more finished car interiors had been recently featured in a movie.

One of the exhibits that bowled me over was the circus car, shown in the photo at top. While I've seen them depicted in many children's books, seeing a circus car in person brought to life the excitement people must have once felt seeing them pass. The heavy iron bars conveyed the threat presented by the caged animal (in this case, a leopard).

I also loved seeing the hand-powered rail truck shown here, such a common feature in cartoons from my childhood. Are these still featured in today's cartoons? I don't know, but I doubt it. If you know the answer, please speak up in the comments.

I recently watched "Grave of the Fireflies," an animated film by Isao Takahata. Although the animated format suggests children's fare, this is a film for adults about children. It is the story of two orphaned siblings trying to survive in Japan during the fire-bombings and privations of World War II.

"Grave of the Fireflies" presents a gripping story, made more so by the fact that it is drawn from a semi-autobiographical novel and the tragedies it depicts are real. The film does an incredible job of conveying the emotions of the older brother, Seita, as he struggles to protect his young sister, Setsuko. It is the most subtle emotional portrayal I've seen in an animated film, and made me marvel at what can be accomplished by animation. Today's CGI animation often presents technical wonders, but this movie is a marvel of storytelling.

Brother and sister examine a fireflyI have an interest in the subject of siblings, particularly sisters. There are many books dealing with the competitive relationship between siblings; there is less available on the positive aspects of the sibling bond. This quieter relationship that exists between siblings is what "Grave of the Fireflies" excels at showing.

Seita is 10 years older than Setsuko, so he falls easily into a parental role with his much younger sister. The love that that the two siblings have for each other is so sweetly evident betwen them, even when the strains of everyday life--lack of food, lack of shelter--threaten to overwhelm the characters. "Grave of the Fireflies" is simply a beautiful film and I highly recommend watching it.

History in short installments

The 20th anniversary of the Los Angeles insurrection is being observed this week in L.A., and to a lesser extent, elsewhere. I was living in another state when the insurrection occurred 20 years ago, but felt tied to the events through a relative living close to the action and through a sense of connection to my hometown. This week, I decided to relive the events by following @RealTimeLARiots on Twitter.

Tweets show the city in crisis

@RealTimeLARiots is published by the local NBC station in Los Angeles. According to the announcement on the NBC-LA page, "Each @RealTimeLARiots tweet corresponds to the actual date and time (sometimes down to the minute) of each major event as it unfolded back in 1992." This reminded me of a similar effort I noted a few weeks previous, the History channel's live-tweeting of the Titanic Voyage at @TitanicRealTime on the 100th anniversary of the ship's sinking.

Both the History Channel and NBC-LA used the term "live-tweeting" to describe their efforts, but it's not really an accurate description of either account. What they're doing is more like a dramatic reconstruction in real-time. The spontaneity of a live event is missing, since the events on which individual tweets are based have already occurred.

Although missing the live component, the serial dramas presented in @RealTimeLARiots and @TitanicRealTime nonetheless have the power to spark new emotions as people on Twitter remember, learn about and share the events of the past. In the case of @TitanicRealTime, some younger Followers discovered for the first time that the story of the Titanic was real, rather than fictional. I haven't seen any confirmed instances of people confusing @RealTimeLARiots with the present-day, although that could emerge still.

To kick off @RealTimeLARiots, NBC-LA asked, "What if Twitter existed in 1992? How would social media help tell the story of Rodney King and the Los Angeles Riots?" Which gets it exactly wrong, because although @RealTimeLARiots can reconstruct the events of 20 years ago, the one thing it cannot do is tell the events of yesteryear as if Twitter existed back then. Reading the recreation of events presented on @RealTimeLARiots is in a way similar to watching an old movie on Blu-ray. The events are being remastered, not remade.

The news experience on Twitter is cacophonous, and never more so than when news is breaking. No one can say how Twitter's chorus of voices might have shaped the L.A. insurrection, even as it narrated its progress. Much has been written about how Twitter enables activism; it is also proving to be a capable tool during emergencies. The hashtag #SMEM, which stands for Social Media for Emergency Management, tracks some of the new uses of Twitter during emergency situations.

The L.A. insurrection might have unfolded differently, as participants shared information online; it also might have been managed differently, with citizens, first responders, law enforcement and military using Twitter to navigate the crisis.

Despite their limitations, @RealTimeLARiots and @TitanicRealTime are successful examples of new media serial entertainment or edutainment. Only time will tell if their popularity or the technology that supports them will last.

Washington's Brave Drummer, Molly

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For George Washington's birthday, I thought I'd post some images from an old hardbound children's book in my collection called, "Molly The Drummer Boy." The book was written by Harriet T. Comstock with illustrations by Curtis Wager-Smith. Copyright is listed as 1900.
The book's colorful cover

The story is about a girl named Debby who disguises herself as a boy, renames herself Molly and joins the Revolutionary army as a drummer. The author claims the story is based on historical fact, but Comstock doesn't mention where she first encountered records of the story.
A long-haired boy before Washington

The caption to this illustration reads, "For a moment Washington eyed the boy."

The first time I encountered the idea of the multiverse was reading a Flash comic book. I was a kid in school and a recent graduate to superhero comics, which were more challenging reading than the Harvey and Archie comics that I was used to. It was also my first step away from the Batman and Superman comic books I was already reading, which were easier to read because they featured characters that were familiar to me from television.

Cover of The Flash #237I had been attracted to this particular Flash comic by it dramatic cover, featuring contrasting suits worn by the Flash and the Reverse-Flash, also known as Professor Zoom. Although people often look down on comics as simple reading material, they do not always make for easy reading. In this case, I had jumped into a serial story in progress, with characters I was not familiar with and a complex plot dealing with time-travel.

Although aspects of The Flash were difficult for me to comprehend, I stuck with the comic series because the characters were compelling, especially the villainous Professor Zoom. The art added a tremendous amount to my understanding of the plot. In fact, at that age I'm not sure I would have grasped the idea of parallel worlds or branching realities without illustrations of Earth-One and Earth-Two. Editorial asides filled me in on back story that I had missed. The comics format also allowed me to flip comfortably back and forth through pages and issues, which helped me keep track of the story as it wove through time and across worlds.

Skip ahead to the present day, where I'm following a story of multiple worlds on the television show, Fringe. I want to say that it's the most complicated multiverse story I've been exposed to, but that's probably not true--I think DC's Infinite Crisis and the year-long 52 saga probably take that title. Fringe is, nonetheless, an extremely intricate story of multiple worlds. (In the season two finale, Fringe acknowledged a debt to DC comics and its multiverse mythos.)

This season, several of the main actors on Fringe, including Anna Torv, John Noble and Jasika Nicole, play as many as four different versions of themselves. Although there are sometimes visual indicators to distinguish among versions--for example, one Olivia is blonde while another is redhead--the burden is on the actors to show their characters' differences. The cast does an incredible job making us believe in their characters' lives across multiple worlds.

Unfortunately, the broadcast television format is not always supportive of Fringe's complex storyline. Long season and mid-season breaks make it difficult to keep track of past and present in the show's multiple universes. While earlier seasons were light on commercials, more commercials in the current season mean less time to explain the action and flesh out story arcs. In an interview, series creator J.J. Abrams claims Fringe was intended to be a serialized show, but that "we were instructed by the network, at the beginning of Season 3, to stop that." (Note: Corrected based on commenter input.)

While part of creating a successfully TV series involves working within the commercial demands of the medium, I can't help but feel that the power of "Fringe's" multiverse storytelling is being lost to narrow programming requirements. I hope Fringe gets renewed for a fifth season, but I hope it also receives license to develop the serialized storytelling that it's multiverse drama needs, and which have made the show such a standout in past seasons.

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