June 10th, 2003

Eisner Museum, 06-04-03

I had some vacation time this week, so we got out to some of the local sights. On Wednesday, June 4, we went over to the east side of Milwaukee, did some shopping, and had a lovely lunch at Coquette Cafe, a restaurant we highly reccommend. After lunch, we strolled a couple blocks to the William Eisner Advertising Museum, which is operated by the Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design, our local art college. The Advertising Museum (named for the long-time head of a well-known local ad firm) has had a number of surprisingly interesting exhibits since opening a couple of years ago, and the attraction this time was an exhibit on the work of Brooks Stevens.

You are probably more familiar with Steven's work than you know. He began a career in Industrial Design in the 20's that lasted into the 1970's, so he has helped shape a lot of our modern world. Indeed, his reach extended futher than that, since his firm still exists, and he taught at both Milwaukee School of Engineering and Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design into the 1990's. At the height of Stevens's career, he worked extensively for major companies throughout the Midwest and designed everything from beer bottle labels (Miller Brewing) and tape dispensers (3M Company) to cars (Jeep, Studebaker, Excalibur) and trains (The Milwaukee Road Hiawatha). When you call up the mental image of a steam iron, an electric dryer, an outboard motor, or a tractor, the odds are you are visualzing a Stevens design. The Eisner Museum show concentrates on his work in advertising, packaging, and labeling, and complements a new show at the Milwaukee Art Museum which will showcase more actual artifacts of his work, including cars and motorcycles. We have that show on our list of things to see later this summer.

Milwaukee Zoo, 06-05-03

On Thursday the 6th, our friend Kris Wilke came in from Madison to visit. She's particularly fond of our Zoo, and the weather was good, so off we went. We got there just as the Zoo was opening, and just ahead of a tidal wave of school children on class trips. We surfed ahead of the wave deep into the park, and got to see a few of the animals in their early-morning routines before the horde caught up with us. Our route took us past the badger's enclosure, and we were delighted to see the badger was out and about. Normally, they are actually shy creatures, and about all we are accustomed to seeing is the animal's nose and eyes as it crouches defensively in the opening to it's inner cage. Not this morning, though! We got to watch for several minutes as the badger strolled about, sniffed and scratched (showing us its impressive claws). That was great! The ubiquitous peacocks that roam the Zoo were in fine feather, and we were amused to note that some Canada geese seem to be acquiring peacock habits, such as trying to pose dramatically on outcrops of the Zoo rock formations. We watched the sea lion apparently doing "loosening up" exercises on its neck (revealing how much neck it actually has) while the harbor seal floated still asleep. We sat caracal kittens in the Cat house which was a treat, although we were sad to find that the Zoo's elderly male lion had died of cancer. The Siberian tigers were quite magnificent, as usual.

We also looked in on the Red Pandas (the smaller cousin of the large black-and-white pandas), gorillas and bonobos, the renovated Bird house, and the "Raptory" theater for a close look at hawks, owls, and buzzards, before calling it a day. The Zoo also hosts warthogs (feeling antisocial today), koalas, and arctic wolves, but we'll get back to them another time.

Movies: "A Mighty Wind"

Since we like both folk and filk music, and grew up during the period of what Art Thieme called the "folk scare" of the 60's when Peter, Paul and Mary and The Kingston Trio were mainstream music, we were interested in "A Mighty Wind", which is a comedy in the form of a documentary (by the makers of "This Is Spinal Tap" and "Waiting for Guffman"), about three mythical 60's folk acts brought together for a reunion. the film explores their supposed backgrounds and histories, what happened to them after their moments of fame, and what their lives are like now.

The acts are The "New" Main Street Singers (a group of nine similar to the New Christie Minstrels, only one orginal member left, still around and playing second-sting amusement parks), the Folksmen (a male trio, retired from performing, and Mitch and Micky (a "cute couple," driven apart by Mitch's descent into paranoid depression). (Although we could think of lots of analogs for the Main Street Singers and the Folksmen, Georgie and I had a hard time thinking of any male-female duets from the era that resembled Mitch and Mickey--our closest guess was the Carpenters, although they were more of a pop act, with Mitch barely surviving a mental illness, unlike Karen Carpenter.) In these films, the dialog is entirely improvised, which makes some of it wonderfully goofy, while some other of it is lame. The Folksmen's reminiscence about their second-rate recording label that issued records without holes is one of the funniest bits although totally improbable. On the other hand, Bob Balaban, who plays the reunion organizer, drives his "noodge" character so far into the ground that it's a positive relief when one of the other characters swats him. Fred Willard as Mike LaFontaine, the Main Street Singers' manager, overplays the part of an obnoxious asshole to the point he's painful to listen to, and one brief appearance of the character would have been sufficient.

On the other hand, Eugene Levy, who plays Mitch Cohen, does a frighteningly good job of portraying someone who's had a few too many doses of Thorazine. The uniformity and believability of his character throughout is truly remarkable given the improvised nature of the script.

The musical score is also worth comment, since the performers wrote and performed their own music, which reproduces second-rate 1960's folk music very well--not good enough to be really good, not bathetic enough to be really dreadful, and not obviously parodying other songs (though I do think that "Never Did No Wanderin" has great potential to be filked).

All in all, the movie was generally sweet, funny, and appreciative of, if not reverent of, its source material, which is the kind of satire I like best. Recommended if you liked folk music at all.

The Matrix Reloaded, 06-08-03

Sunday the 8th was our first real opportunity to take in the second installment of "The Matrix," "Matrix Reloaded." While visually stunning as before, it was not an unrelievedly pleasant experience, partially due to the theatre. Our local movie house is usually pretty good, but on this occasion, they had the sound amped up so that the previews (which for this show are all pretty much action films and hence loud) were at a painful volume, and some of the concussive sequences of the film were not much better. Some things about the film drive me nuts. Since this is an orginal creation, there ought not be anomalies such as exist in say, "The Lord of the Rings," or the "Harry Potter" movies, where a filmmaker is adapting another's vision to a medium for which it was not intended. I've ranted before about the basic stupidity of the idea that the machines use humans as heat engines (it would be far more efficient just to burn whatever they are feeding the people)instead of, as would be obvious to any reader of cyberpunk, turning the tables and using the human's minds as distributed processing nodes to support the Matrix itself.

Most of the personified programs have titles that reflect function, like the Oracle, the Keymaker, and the Architect. But then we find an "old" program called "The Merovingian." Say what? Are you telling me Charlemagne had a computer? The character/program's function would have been perfectly expressed by a title like "The Keeper," "The Collector," or even "The Miser," but someone threw in "Merovingian" just because it sounded cool and not because it fit in with the total design.

Inconsistent handling of the Matrix bugs me also. I understand that story needs require that the rebels need their virtual phone connections to get out of the Matrix instead of just jacking out when danger threatens, but then you can drive out via the "freeway"? (Flashback here to "True Stories of the Information Highway Patrol"--those of you who were at WisCon will understand--.) The freeway is just an excuse to have an overdone (and overlong) car-chase in an otherwise cyberpunk environment.

Apparently, being a slave to the Matrix is good for you, as evinced by the scenes in Zion, where everyone is buff and young-looking, with the sole exception being SF-movie veteran Anthony Zerbe as the aging Councilor Hamman. (And why should the machines cause the slaves of the Matrix to develop muscle tone at all, in their artificial wombs?)

Being in the Matrix is handled inconsistently. If you die in the Matrix, your body dies, but dropping out of contact when passing through one of the Keymaker's "back doors" causes no problems.

Does it make sense to diable the alarms on a virtual building by cutting off the virtual electricity (by blowing up a virtual power plant with a virtual bomb--)? Even if you consider this as metaphorical cyberspace representations of actions that are actually attacks on lines of code, it doesn't seem to be sensible.

That said, the film is still fun to watch. Neo's battle with the seemingly infinitely replicating former agent Smith was particularly good. The major plot twist at the climax was a surprise, and, although we are given some hints, this second installment of course ends with a cliffhanger. I look forward to seeing the third episode in December, but I'll be taking along some serious earplugs.

Beethoven Festival

This June, the Milwaukee Symphony is having a Beethoven Festival, in which, over a period of weeks, they are performing all of the nine symphonies and all of Beethoven's piano concerti. Saturday's program consisted of two favorite symphonies, the Eighth and the Sixth, and Concerto Number Two. We managed to scrounge up some last-minute tickets (last row of the balcony and not together) but the accoustics in Uhline Hall of the Marcus Center are usually very good, so being in the stratosphere is not a problem. We were somewhat worried in midweek when we caught a news story saying that the sound baffle system suspended above the stage had been damaged in an accident and the hall might not be safe. However, it was repaired in time for the performances, and the sound was splendid. A few people didn't show up, so we were able to slide over and sit together, which always enhances the experience--.

I had forgotten how much I enjoyed the Eighth Symphony, which is one of Beethoven's lightest and most "fun" symphonies. The orchestra under principal conductor Andreas Delfs was very fine. I was not particulalry familiar with the Second Piano Concerto, but found it very enjoyable and well done as well. The Sixth Symphony ("Pastoral") was the big draw for us,and the orchestra and Delfs performed magnificently, drawing a lengthy and deserved ovation.