Movie Review: Man on Wire

When Phillipe Petit first began planning to walk between the twin towers of the World Trade Center on a cable – planning that commenced even before construction had begun – he could have had no idea that the end result might eventually be pressed into service as one of many eulogies for those doomed buildings and the people who died in them on September 11, 2001.

Though that terrible day is not explicitly mentioned in the 2008 movie documenting Petit’s daring feat, Man on Wire, the viewer cannot help but be reminded of it, whether by archival footage of the initial assembly of the buildings’ distinctive exoskeleton-like trusses – the remains of which would stand twisted and scorched above the rubble piles – or by a chilling photograph, taken during a reconnaissance mission, that frames not only Petit but the top of one tower and a plane pointed toward it. As a result, the movie has a melancholy air that would otherwise not be present in what is, on its own terms, simply a meditation on the indomitability of the human instinct for adventure, exploration, and creativity. But the melancholy is the smaller part, and this is by no means a sad movie.

If all I’d known about Man on Wire were the simple facts of its subject matter, I probably wouldn’t have rented it. Petit’s stunt is easy to mock, especially for those of us who have gradually gotten our guard up against the weak arguments of so many second-rate “performance artists” and other provocateurs concerning the alleged value of transgression for its own sake. But the movie made enough critics’ top-10 lists, and the previews I saw expressed such an infectious enthusiasm for the story, that I eventually decided I wanted to see it for myself.

I’m glad I did, even if Petit’s stunt – indeed, Petit himself – remain easy to mock, even after viewing. The man, who is given to silly statements such as how, if he had died in the course of his wirewalk, it would have been “a beautiful death,” exudes pretension and self-satisfaction (the French accent doesn’t help), and of course he wasn’t the only one he was putting at risk. The process of stringing 200 feet of cable between the buildings, while hiding from guards, could easily have resulted in the fall of one of his helpers. And of course a misstep by Petit himself could have resulted in his flattening an innocent pedestrian in the plaza below (though of course the odds were steeply against this.)

Still, many of these same criticisms can be leveled against the latest climbing party to attempt Mt. Everest or K2, especially since such climbers can no longer be said to be “exploring” or showing the rest of us what humans are capable of or anything, really, other than indulging themselves. At least it is possible to say that Petit was attempting something that no one had ever done before and which  even today, with the photographic evidence before us – it is difficult to believe really lies within the realm of human ability.

The most affecting element of the movie is not the wire walk itself, but rather Petit’s single-minded determination to pull it off – across years and years of planning, and despite one failed attempt. In an interview segment, Petit reminisces about first reading of the World Trade Center construction plans in a magazine while he waited in a dentist’s office to be treated for a toothache. As he tells the story, he was so excited at the thought of one day wire-walking between the two towers that he tore the page out of the magazine and left before seeing the dentist, claiming that the pain of a toothache was nothing compared to the exhilaration of having found his dream. I’m suspicious of the details of the story  Petit doesn’t strike me as someone who would have scruples against a little self-dramatization – but there can be no doubt that it at least accurately represents the thrill of discovering what your dream is, an experience we should all be lucky enough to have.

Using Wordbook to Cross Post From My Blog to Facebook

This is a test, but I might as well explain what’s going on.

If you are reading this on Facebook, then I successfully used a WordPress plugin named Wordbook to notify my Facebook profile of the latest post on my non-Facebook blog, Margin Notes. (If you’re reading this on, well, never mind. If you don’t know what WordPress is, it’s basically the software that powers this web site.)

Wordbook was no problem to set up. Once I figured out that I needed to switch my server setting from PHP 4.x to PHP 5.x, it took about two seconds. I use Dreamhost, so this switch was dead easy, but of course your results may vary.

Okay, so it looks like you wouldn’t be “reading this on Facebook” (or any more of this than just the title). I am checking to see if there are options that allow you to show more of the post.

There are such options. You have to go into Facebook’s “Application Settings,” and – in my case – select “applications granted special permissions” in order to be able to see Wordbook. Then you can “create a box,” so that your past blog posts show up (just the first line or two of each) in a box on your “boxes” tab. You can also set it to allow posts of different lengths. Looks like “short posts” just automatically excerpts the first 100 words or so of the post both on your profile wall page and on your friends’ “home” page, but doesn’t pay any attention to anything you might have put in the WordPress “excerpt” box. Oh, well, works for me.

Update to the update:
Never mind. Wordbook doesn’t post to the Facebook “home” page, just to a “box” on the users profile page. That makes it pretty useless for me, since I don’t think people are going to go to profile pages very regularly, especially with the new design. Instead, I’m using the native Facebook Notes feature, “import a blog.”

To do this yourself (as of March 16, 2009, the “new” format):

  1. hover your mouse arrow above “settings” in the top bar of your Facebook page.
  2. A small menu will open; click “application settings.”
  3. In the list of applications, click “Notes” (not “edit settings”).
  4. On the page that opens, you will see notes from your friends and a gray sidebar toward the right of the page. In that sidebar, toward the bottom, is the heading “Notes Settings.” Under that, you’ll find the start of the process for importing your blog posts as Facebook Notes.

One drawback for this method  as opposed to Wordbook – is that the posts won’t be readily identifiable as coming from an external blog. In other words, there is nothing to distinguish the Notes-imported blog post from a regular Note, composed entirely in Facebook.

This application won’t really drive traffic to your blog, either, if that’s important to you, because the post can be read in its entirety on Facebook. If you open the full post page on Facebook, by clicking on the headline of the post, you’ll see a link for “view original post,” which will take readers to your blog. But it seems likely most people won’t bother, since they can read the whole thing on Facebook.

Mozy: Cheap, But You Get What You Pay For

Part 1 of a two-part series about my experiences with the on-line file-backup service Mozy. Part 2 is here.

I’ve been using Mozy since the fall of 2007, when I stumbled across it while researching backup options. I was about five months into working as a full-time freelancer, and I was getting more and more worried by the fact that not only my photos, music and personal files but also the work I was doing for clients were all unprotected.

At first, I was going to get an external hard drive and use a synchronizing program, but the pessimist in me was quickly swayed by the arguments for remote backup systems, such as Mozy. An external hard drive is a great way to protect against data loss from machine problems (disintegrating hard drive, file corruption, etc.), but what about fire or burglary? In one of these worst-case scenarios, if the external hard drive is in the same location as your computer, the backed-up data might be gone, too.

I was also swayed by the price difference. Setting up an external hard drive and a synchronizing program would probably cost at least $100. Mozy costs $5 per month and protects against anything from accidental deletion of a single document to total loss in a tsunami (admittedly uncommon in Montana, but you can never be too careful).

I also thought that an online backup solution like Mozy just seemed elegant. Like Gmail, Flickr, Google Docs, and so many other similar services, Mozy felt like it was letting me tap into the distributed “survivability” that was the original purpose of the entire internet – which, after all, was originally designed to support the continuity of the U.S. government in the event of, say, a nuclear exchange.

So, in November 2007, I signed up for Mozy’s Mac beta version and started backing up.

The initial upload of the data that I wanted backed up took about a month or two. That’s nothing against Mozy – I ultimately selected close to 30 gigabytes of data for backup, and I was using a cellular modem in an area with poor tower coverage, resulting in low bandwidth – but the amount of data and the connection speed weren’t the only factors slowing things down.

The additional factor was the frequent errors that caused the service to disconnect itself, which meant that – when I wasn’t keeping a close eye on the upload process – I would sometimes lose a day or two in what was already an immensely long process. When I complained to Mozy Support (available to “home” users only by email and – during business hours – web chat), I was told that these interruptions were “known issues” for which there was no fix but to uninstall and reinstall Mozy on my computer.

And these interruptions didn’t go away once I had completed my initial upload. I had to go through the reinstall process about once every two months for the year and a half that I was using Mozy. This was understandable as long as I was using a “beta” product (the software industry’s term for a product that is still being tested and improved), but the product came out of beta while I was using it, with no noticeable reduction in the problems I’d been experiencing.

Frequent reinstalls of the Mozy application wouldn’t have been such a big deal, except that – each time – I also had to re-select the files I wanted backed up. When uninstalling Mozy, there is an option to save your configuration, but I learned early on that doing so also “saved” whatever problem I was having. It seemed that the only way to successfully eliminate the errors I was experiencing was to utterly wipe the application, its log, and its configuration settings from my machine, and to start from scratch after reinstalling, including reselecting which files I wanted backed up.

And having to reselect what files I was backing up introduced the risk that I might overlook something I had selected in a previous configuration, which, in turn, would signal to Mozy that I no longer wanted that particular file backed up.

As an aside, another potential problem with Mozy for some people is that, if you (1) back up a given file and then (2) accidentally erase that file, Mozy only keeps the backed up version of the file for 30 days, after which it interprets that file’s absence from your machine as evidence that you want it to become absent from the backup as well. If you think about it for a moment, this is a pretty strange policy, since it means that – if you don’t spot an accidental deletion within 30 days – you’ll never be able to restore that file. It also means that you can’t store something on Mozy long term, say 5,000 photos you don’t have room for on your machine while you are waiting to upgrade your hard drive, or something like that.

Still, for all these limitations, Mozy seemed like good value for the price. Then, earlier this month, I needed to restore everything, and I learned the hard way just how little that $5 per month was really buying me.

Next, Part 2: Mozy is great okay… until you need to restore. And isn’t that kind of the point?

Quarantine a Competent and Enjoyable Pseudo-Zombie Flick

Pity the poor horror-movie fan.

He wanders the new-releases aisle at the video store disconsolately, casting his jaundiced eye on the latest offerings.

After long experience, he knows that the best he can realistically hope for is that the movie he selects won’t insult his intelligence too much. Still rarer is the movie that is written well enough that the viewer can identify with or at least worry about the fates of the characters all the way through to the end. There are legends of horror movies that transcend their genre and qualify as works of art on their own, but these are as rare as unicorns.

My last post, a rumination on “why movies suck,” spilled out of my brain as I tried to begin a review of the 2008 horror film Quarantine, recently out on DVD and rented by me this past Saturday night. I decided to spin those thoughts off into their own post when I realized they would be out of place in a review of a movie I actually enjoyed.

But the point I made about Hollywood’s obvious interest in pleasing teenaged movie viewers – its best customers – applies in spades to horror, a genre that has its lifelong fans but which appeals almost across the board to young people, simply as a function of their being at an age when they are just beginning to realize how pleasurable autonomic nervous-system arousal can be – especially when it causes one’s date to snuggle closer through no potentially humiliating effort of one’s own. So, while it’s fairly difficult to find a newly released film aimed at a wider audience than 14-year-olds across all genres, the odds are even poorer when the field is limited to horror.

So I was pleasantly surprised by Quarantine. When I rented it, I knew nothing more about it than the description on the back and the fact that someone at the web site (previously unknown to me) considers it “quite possibly the best horror film this year”; intending no disrespect to that web site in particular, I was braced for disappointment. But the movie was clearly positioned as part of the zombie sub-genre, a type of horror movie particularly near and dear to my heart (possibly because one of my earliest horror-movie viewing experiences was sneak-watching Night of the Living Dead one night in early middle school when my parents were out), so I decided to give it a shot.

Quarantine is not really a zombie movie, of course. It’s a disease movie, and in that regard shares some scare territory with the masterful 2002 Cabin Fever, in that part of what is disquieting about the plot setup is not just the threat of infection that the characters face, but also how the characters behave toward each other as they realize that any one of them could at some point begin to pose a fatal threat to the rest. But this element is much more pronounced in Cabin Fever, where the disease simply causes its victims to sicken and die. In Quarantine, infection eventually results in extremely aggressive behavior manifested in a pronounced desire to bite other people; in other words, infection essentially turns people into the sort of “fast zombies” popularized in 28 Days Later (2002) and the 2004 remake of George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead.* They’re not really zombies, but they are the next best thing.

These pseudo-zombies are encountered when a TV film crew – one anchorwoman and one cameraman – tag along with some firefighters to a medical call at a small apartment building in Los Angeles. No sooner has the realization dawned that there is something unexpectedly dangerous in the building than the emergency personnel and residents realize that they are trapped, with no hope of assistance from the outside world.

The movie is full of smart references to other horror classics. The shot of one sickened woman staring blankly at her snowy television screen is straight out of Poltergeist, and  speaking of Night of the Living Dead – the Romero film is evoked by a television interview with an unfeeling police official as well as by the sniper’s headshot that kills one of the uninfected characters, in the same sort of “better safe than sorry” mentality that is evident at the end of that early classic. And at the risk of seeing references that might or might not be intended, there is even a blood-cleaning scene in which one character all but starts quoting “out, out damned spot” as he furiously scrubs his – well, I wouldn’t want to give away one of the most creative zombie-killing weapons/scenes I’ve ever seen.

One problem for some potential viewers is the fact that Quarantine is shot entirely from the TV camera on the cameraman’s shoulder. (And we only know what happened because of the footage found later, etc.) This sort of technique, used – I thought – to great effect in The Blair Witch Project, has two main potential problems.

One potential problem is logical and risks hampering suspension of disbelief, i.e., some viewers won’t be able to keep from wondering why the camera operator doesn’t put the damn camera down, given that his or her hands might be better employed bashing zombies or otherwise doing something other than recording everyone else’s deaths for posterity.

The other potential problem is what you might call ergonomic: the recent release Cloverfield (which I enjoyed), was presented as if shot entirely from a handheld mini-video-camera, and was as a result so shaky that there were reports of people having seizures in the theaters, while Amy left our viewing sick to her stomach.

Quarantine handles both problems fairly well. As to the first problem: on the one hand, the cameraman is a news professional, so it’s not surprising that he would be disciplined to keeping rolling even during moments of extreme duress; on the other, as events build to a more and more fatal head, the power goes out, and the light on the camera is one of the only handy sources of illumination. As to the second problem (potential shakiness, etc.), the Quarantine camera man is a professional with a shoulder rig, so there is relatively little shakiness and reeling.

Quarantine is a remake of the 2007 Spanish movie Rec, which I have not seen but which everyone on-line seems to agree was much better (well, except for commenter on this post). Still, despite being a remake, Quarantine was clearly shot by some people with at least a little wit (there’s this scene with a rat that made me laugh out loud) and more than a little skill. (Have you ever considered, for example, how much directorial and acting skill goes into these “handheld camera” movies? There are necessarily some very long takes, which requires quite a lot of planning and blocking and, needless to say, knowing your lines.) It’s far from the first movie I’d recommend if you want to start watching horror/zombie movies, but if you’re a fan already and recognize it’s a mass-market Hollywood effort, it’s a decent little picture.

* I’m predisposed toward and more likely to find real artfulness in slow zombies, again possibly because of having had my first exposure to the genre through Romero’s groundbreaking Night of the Living Dead. In the shambling gait of the reanimated corpses of that film, you have something like the prospect of death itself: far away at first, approaching you predictably and – for the most part – avoidably, if you just pay attention and take some precautions. It should be easy to stay away from or defend yourself against slow zombies, but inevitably mistakes are made, sheer numbers overwhelm, irrational decisions are made, and isn’t this how it is with life itself? But this isn’t a debate worth having about Quarantine, because – insofar as some people make the dubious argument that fast zombies aren’t “believable” (as opposed to zombies in general?) – of course it’s believable that people who have simply been infected with a disease would still be able to move relatively quickly, as opposed to, say, reanimated corpses in varying stages of decomposition.

Why Movies Suck

It’s a question that arises every time I visit the video store or go out to the local cineplex: why are there so many bad movies?

One could be forgiven for thinking that it’s because the people in charge of Hollywood no longer have even the sense they were born with, but this conclusion only holds if one assumes that Hollywood is actually trying to make good movies.

Why on earth wouldn’t they be trying to make good movies? Well, in order to make more money, of course.

I wouldn’t be the first to point out the vastly increased role of the various Hollywood studios’ marketing departments in every stage of the creative process these days. Whereas marketing departments once usually stepped in only after a movie was completed, marketers are now involved in decisions about what scripts to buy and how to rewrite them, whom to cast, and how to film, all in the service of sales strategies targeting specific demographic groups. (I’m not arguing that this never used to be the case, back in some Edenic halcyon age of moviemaking for movies’ sake, but if you imagine a continuum between “moviemaking for movies’ sake” and “moviemaking for the shareholders’ sake,” I think it’s pretty clear that we used to be a lot closer to the former and are lately tending a lot closer to the latter.)

And if there’s one demographic group that causes Hollywood marketing directors to hear old-fashioned cash-register kaching noises while their pupils are replaced by dollar-bill signs, it’s 12-24-year-olds, because they buy the most movie tickets. In 2007 – the most recent data I could find after 30 seconds of googling – this age group bought almost 40 percent of all movie tickets sold. (The next biggest purchasers are 25-39-year-olds, responsible for only 29 percent of 2007 ticket sales.) For an idea of what kind of money these people are putting on the table, consider that the spending power of 12-17-year-olds alone nearly reached $190 billion in 2006 and was predicted to top $200 billion any year now. (I imagine that more than a few allowances have been revised downward since that prediction was made, but still.)

One interesting question I’m not sure how to answer is what came first – teens buying the most movie tickets, or movies being aimed more and more at teens. But at the moment, if you are a Hollywood executive who wants to be able to report good news to your company’s shareholders, you couldn’t be blamed for deciding that marketing to teenagers needs to be a pretty important part of your strategy.

In other words, the preponderance of idiotic movies does not mean that Hollywood is run by idiots. It means Hollywood is run by very smart people who are very good at separating 14-year-olds from their paper-route money.

So the next time you – i.e., a non-12-24-year-old, or anyone interested in movies aimed at people with a little more life experience and perspective – are scanning the new releases at the video store, or checking the paper to see if there might be a movie playing that you are willing to spend $7-$15 to see, remember that you are trespassing in the sandbox. The movies don’t look good to you because they aren’t made for you. (This is why, in general, I rarely pay attention to movies that take up more than a shelf or two in the video store new releases display. The more copies the store ordered, the worse the odds that it’s anything I need to see.)

Maybe you should take up knitting or something.