Friday, October 25, 2019

Friday Night Videos

Friday Night Videos

I tend to forget how big Steve Winwood got in the late 80s. I mean, sure, Arc of a Diver is a well-regarded album, but even so, Winwood was still regarded as that guy from Traffic. Then Back in the High Life arrived, with it's first single, "Higher Love." Can you say monster hit? You couldn't get away from this song. Fortunately, it's a good song, although nowhere near my favorite of Winwood's output. I guess radio was ready for an extended period of Winwood sounds, but just didn't know it yet.

Previously on Friday Night Videos... Rush.

Now Playing: Les Baxter Skins
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Monday, October 21, 2019

The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance episode 5

Episode 5: She Knows All the Secrets

Obligatory Plot Summary: Hunter has Rian tied up and is ready to slice the Gelfling up to claim his hunting trophy when the Chamberlain abruptly shows up to talk him out of it. Instead, the Chamberlain takes possession of Rian to return the Gelfling to the castle himself, all in a bid to regain favor with the Emperor. The All-Maudra, who had earlier dismissed rumors of an unnatural blight corrupting Gelfling lands, is shown a landstrider corrupted by the Darkening. This jars the All-Maudra, who begins questioning her recent (and arrogant) decisions. Rather than allow her guard to kill the afflicted creature, the All-Maudra orders its release, commending its fate to Thra. Princess Seladon squabbles with Princess Brea, arguing the magical stone creature, Lore, is dangerous and unnatural, as is the hidden chamber beneath the throne room. The All-Maudra arrives, and although skeptical, agrees to enter the chamber with Brea, mindful of her recent errors in judgment. Deet, disguised as Ha'rar nobility to gain an audience with the All-Maudra, arrives with Hup, carrying her warning of the Darkening. The disguise doesn't fool Seladon for a moment. Deet offers to prove her story by Dreamfasting with Seladon. In the Skeksis coach, Rian and the Chamberlain argue about the ethics of the Skeksis harvesting Gelflings. In exasperation, the Chamberlain stops the coach and offers Rian his freedom. If Rian flees, the Chamberlain warns, rebellion and war will follow, and the Skeksis will kill all Gelflings. If Rian stays and war is averted, the majority of Gelflings will live out their lives happily, oblivious of the grim fate of some of their number. Rian, swayed by the Chamberlain's arguments, agrees to stay. A short while later, Naia and Gurjin (freed by Naia from the Skeksis dungeons) attack the coach with the goal of freeing Rian. The Chamberlain's arguments apparently forgotten, Rian, Gurjin and Naia disconnect the giant rolling pillbug things from the coach and ride off to freedom as the Chamberlain crashes in humiliation. At the Sanctuary tree, Aughra has been stomping and fussing and demanding to hear the Song of Thra, with no success. Aughra then realizes she must listen, humbly, to be able to hear Thra. The song comes to her and she begins to chant and dance in ritualistic fashion. Across Thra, Rian shares what he's seen of the Skeksis with Gurjin and Naia through Dreamfasting, while in Ha'rar, Brea and the All-Maudra do the same, as do Deet and Seladon. They're all brought together simultaneously in a dreamspace version of the Castle of the Crystal, where Aughra tells them all the full extent of the Skeksis plans. Rian shares the death of Mira, and they all agree the Skeksis mus be fought before Gelflings are wiped out--all except Seladon, who argues what they speak is blasphemy. Aughra casts her out of dreamspace. The remaining rebels lay out their plans, then return to the real world. Seladon rushes to the two Skeksis gathering the "volunteers" and tells them the All-Maudra plots to betray them. The All-Maudra confronts the Skeksis, intent on saving the seven volunteers, and warns them that Gelflings will no longer cooperate. The Skeksis promptly kill the All-Maudra. Seladon claims the title of All-Maudra for herself, and brands Brea, Deet and Hup as traitors. She orders the late-arriving guards to capture the trio and lock them up with the volunteers for transport to the Castle of the Crystal.

Musings: When I say this one was all over the place, I'm not kidding. It contains the absolute best scene of the series thus far, as well as the worst. Throughout the series, the Chamberlain has been presented as the greatest equivocator ever, a devious twister of words who is able to confess to the worst of sins and end up being praised for his nobility. The trouble is, the writing of his dialogue has been sophomoric at best, middle-school reverse psychology at worst. Convincing, he is not. And yet, when he justifies the Skeksis actions to Rian in the coach, he's almost convincing. Not because of the strength of his argument, mind you, but because the Chamberlain seems genuinely concerned with averting bloodshed and suffering. He doesn't regard Gelflings as anything more than livestock, but he sincerely wants said livestock to be treated ethically until the time comes for them to be melted by the Dark Crystal and turned into essence for the enjoyment of Skeksis. And Rian is seemingly won over by this, and rejects the Chamberlain's offer to walk free. That is, until Gurjin and Naia show up, at which point Rian's like, "Up yours, Skeksis! I'm outta here!" It makes not one lick of sense. That escape scene renders the previous scene utterly pointless, a time-filler to pad out the episode. It utterly muddles Rian's motivation and undermines his actions. Why the hell did Rian stay? There's no sense of any plan or motivation on his part, other than to follow the dictates of the script. As for the escape itself, ugh. Yes, it was a clever action sequence on paper, but in reality, it went on twice as long as it should have. Action stretched out too long becomes boring, doubly so when all the Chamberlain had to do to foil the escape was halt the coach. Instead, he flails around inside the coach for several minutes, screaming occasional threats, as the Gelflings fumble around before stealing the giant pill-bugs in the most anti-climactic climax ever. You know, had Rian taken the Chamberlain up of his offer to go free, only to have the Chamberlain renege at the last moment (revealing him to be a liar) the escape sequence would've made sense and at least given Rian some little shred of pride. But no, it was just mindless.

Seladon, too, is problematic. She's presented in previous episodes as bitchy and self-important, but also wholly devoted to her mother, the All-Maudra, and duty. That's not exactly nuanced character, but it is multilayered and a far cry from a mustache-twirling villain. Unfortunately, as soon as the Skeksis are identified as a threat, Seladon becomes... I don't know, a religious fanatic? She doesn't act out of concern for the best interests of the Gelfling subjects (which could've been an interesting take, Seladon as reluctant collaborator to try and save as many Gelflings as possible) but rather out of heretofore-unseen blind devotion to the Skeksis. She blames Brea for her mother's death, seizes power immediately, condemns her sister to certain death and comes off as gloating over her mother's corpse. That's... jarring. Seladon's motivation just isn't there. In all previous scenes, she doesn't come off as power-hungry. If anything, being first in line for the throne is viewed as both a duty and a burden, and she expresses a degree of envy toward her sisters, who don't face either.

The best scene, though, almost makes up for all the bad. Almost. When Aughra is dancing and the scattered Gelflings are Dreamfasting, the rhythm and the sounds and the cuts between each of the scenes is rhythmic and dazzling and transcendent. Katherine Smee is the puppeteer controlling Aughra, and in many cases, wearing the Aughra puppet/prosthetics. Her dancing motion is at once fluid and jerky, otherworldly and tribal. Without her performance here, this scene tying together disparate characters and locales would not work. This is an ambitious sequence. Not just technically ambitious--this series is chock-full of technical wonder. No, this is ambitious from an editing and directoral perspective, conveying the world-changing significance of this moment without any comprehensible dialog, evoking an emotional response, that elusive "sensawunda" out of latex figures pretending to be real. There's some real wow there.

And then they go and spoil it all by immediately killing the All-Maudra as soon as she realizes the error of her ways and turns on the Skeksis. Not only is she the second authority figure to die immediately upon realizing the truth about the Skeksis, she does so in the stupidest way possible. She confronts the Skeksis--who she knows beyond a shadow of a doubt casually kill Gelflings and consume their essence at the drop of a hat--without any of her royal guard, her paladins, but also does so knowing Seladon has warned the Skeksis in advance. That's idiot plot territory right there, when situations unfold the way they do only because characters act like idiots. I hate that. Here's the thing many writers in Hollywood are quick to forget: It is entirely possible to do everything right, to make no mistakes, and still lose. Show the All-Maudra being smart and clever, mobilizing the paladins, recognizing the Skeksis for both the tactical and existential threat they are, and still failing! It's stupid when the lone sleuth confronts the crooked cop in an abandoned warehouse, announcing that they've discovered said cop has been a hitman for the mob with 567 murders to his credit and the sleuth is now going to tell everyone the truth--just as soon as they can get back to civilization, because their cell phone's dead, their car has a flat and they didn't tell anyone where they were going in the first place. It's infuriating when humans do it, and it's infuriating when Gelflings do it. The end.

Now Playing: Marty Robbins Hawaii's Calling Me
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Saturday, October 19, 2019

The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance episode 4

Episode 4: The First Thing I Remember Is Fire

Obligatory Plot Summary: In need of more essence, the Skeksis decide to demand a tribute of seven warriors from each Gelfling tribe to fight the threat of the Arathim (Spitters), large spider-like creatures who have waged war on Gelflings and Skeksis before. The Chamberlain's caution is blamed for Rian's continued evasion of capture, and the threat of Gelfling rebellion grows. Chamberlain is exiled from the Emperor's table, and in retaliation the Chamberlain summons the Hunter, a free-roaming, predatory Skeksis and sets him on Rian's trail. Back in Ha'rar, Princess Brea follows the stairs beneath the throne to a hidden chamber beneath. Each of the Gelfling clans is represented in the chamber by a stone carving with an inset for a glowing medallion. Brea attempts to solve the chamber's riddle by placing the medallion on each carving in turn, in order of the various clans' hierarchical rank. When this fails, Brea realizes that the hierarchy is artificial, that all Gelfling clans/tribes are equal. This turns out to be the solution to the riddle, and a pile of boulders in the chamber assembles itself into a bizarre stone giant identified as Lore. Aughra, frustrated by her failure with the Skeksis as well as her failure to hear the Song of Thra, encounters the Archer, a roaming Mystic who speaks in riddles but ultimately directs her to the Sanctuary Tree to re-learn the Song of Thra. Rian is finally cornered in a Podling village by Princess Tavra, as well as Gurjin's sister Naia and her friend Kylan. Each believes Rian's a murderer and want to turn him in for their own ends. Rian begs them to dreamfast with him, and shows the lone remaining vial of Mira's essence. Because of the Skeksis warning that Rian's madness is passed along by Dreamfasting, they are reluctant to do so, but finally agree. As they are dreamfasting, Ordon, Rian's father, arrives and joins the dreamfast circle as well. All are horrified by the truth and vow to help Rian. The group separates with different missions. Rian and Ordon are ambushed by the Hunter, and it's immediately apparent the Gelfling warriors are overmatched. After hatching a quick plan with Rian as bait, the Gelflings lure the Hunter to a patch of ravenous gobbles (think quicksand with teeth). Ordon sacrifices himself by knocking Hunter into the gobbles. Hunter is too powerful for even the gobbles, however, and emerges (worse for the wear) to capture Rian and head back to the Castle of the Crystal with his prize.

Musings: Holy cow, this was a pretty kick-ass episode! Hunter is an insane, bad-ass Skeksis, a welcome addition to this world and significantly different from the courtly Skeksis we're familiar with, although no less menacing. I was surprised he survived the gobbles, as the Skeksis had not been shown as all that powerful prior to this. Alas, the battle between Hunter, Ordon and Rian isn't terribly satisfying. First of all, the CIG Hunter, slithering through the trees, wasn't good. It didn't make him seem threatening, it was jarring. CGI Hunter did not move in the same way as muppet Hunter at all. It was unnecessary and arguably accomplished nothing beyond inflating the budget and throwing me out of the moment. The actual battle falls into the trope of building an opponent up so that when they're easily defeated, viewers will be wowed by the power of the victor. Rian and particularly Ordon have been positioned as good, potentially great (Ordon) Gelfling warriors. We've seen Skeksis being stabbed, tortured, hurt and bleeding. Hunter's fight with the Gelflings makes the Gelflings look inept and hapless. That's a cheat. For comparison, consider Empire Strikes Back--during the climactic lightsabre duel, viewers are left with no doubt that Luke was woefully overmatched by Darth Vader, but the film still went through considerable effort to show that Luke was not hapless or inept. Vader was just that much stronger. In this battle, apart from the trick with the gobbles (which is more of a ruse than actual combat prowess) the Gelflings might as well be fighting Hunter with Podling Hup's spoon. I know there are budget considerations, but this falls more to the inconsistencies in the script, which have been my problem since episode one. I'm also troubled by the fact that Ordon, the first Gelfling with any authority, is killed off almost as soon as he learns the truth. I understand the narrative needed a death for the Hunter battle to attain a certain gravity, but Ordon's came off as too quick, too convenient.

We also are introduced to Hunter's Mystic counterpart, the Archer, who strikes me as a lot more talkative than most Mystics. I love the physical design of the Mystics and want to see more. Curiously, despite almost unquestioning devotion to their Skeksis overlords, Gelflings, by and large, seem to automatically default to trusting one another. The Skeksis/Gelfling relationship is best described as Gods/worshippers, so this is an interesting development. More interesting is Brea's activation of Lore. Here, we're treated to much more metaphysical magic manifestation. All I can ask here is where did the Gelflings get all of this bad-ass magical power, and why don't they seem to have access to it anymore? Lore is a great creation, weirdly asymmetrical in design. The construct (a stone golem would be the closest analog in established mythologies, I suppose) has what is essentially a phonograph cylinder on its arm, which rotates and produces a recorded message when Lore's other arm, ending in a stone hook, touches it. I mean, this is some gonzo crazy inventive creativity at work here. Between Lore and the Hunter, this episode has the most freshness and vitality of any thus far. Something's actually happening, and the series feels downright vibrant.

Now Playing: Arthur Lyman Hawaiian Sunset
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Friday, October 18, 2019

Friday Night Videos

Friday Night Videos

I've noticed in recent years a bit of hate for Rush manifesting on the interwebz. I'm not sure where that comes from. I'm not a huge Rush fan and recognize the band kinda lost its mojo sometime in the mid-80s. Still, there's a reason the group was white-hot for a while. "Limelight" is a bare-bones performance video, but the upside is that the imagery doesn't distract from the prog-rock sound. There's something to be said for skilled musicianship.

Previously on Friday Night Videos... Queen.

Now Playing: Blue Oyster Cult Workshop of the Telescopes
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Tuesday, October 15, 2019

Tiki build-along, pt. 25

Has it really been since April that I shared my last build-along progress? Yeah, that's not much of a surprise. Here's the deal, my construction methods aren't linear. I don't start working on X and continue until X is complete before starting on Y. I do a little work on X, reach something of a stopping point, then launch projects Y, Z and A1, shifting back and forth as need dictates. Sometimes the delays are financial. Sometimes it's weather related. Other times I run into a problem and need to figure out a work around before continuing. Sometimes it's a simple as it's raining or too cold or too hot. Progress is constant, but it makes little sense to share piecemeal progress on a build-along.

I'm at a point where I'm ready to share my bamboo screen. The images here, they begin a year ago and conclude last month. A year of work, off and on. That's a long span. My last update, I showed the work I'd done on restoring the booth I rescued from that closed Fuddrucker's in Houston. This ties in nicely to that, because this creates a space for the booth to reside. Follow: Bamboo is a major component of tiki bars, but you'll bankrupt yourself if you just try to go out and buy it. Far better (if you live in a climate where bamboo can grow) to set up a Craig's List alert to notify you any time someone posts bamboo for sale. This accomplishes two things--it gives you a heads-up when people post rattan furniture for sale, as most people don't have a clue what rattan is and just default to bamboo, and it lets you know when someone has cleared a lot overgrown with bamboo and they want someone to haul it off for free. I like both of those, but the latter is what I'm talking about now. Last fall there were several postings for free cut bamboo close together, and I picked up a good bit of 2" thick bamboo in both Austin and New Braunfels. Some of the culms were 20' or longer. I cut them into 9' lengths (the longest I could fit into my car) and later torched them. This gave me a lot of building material, as I knew I'd need a lot for my bamboo screen at the end of the covered patio, which will serve ad a symbolic as well as physical transition, marking the farthest extent of the Lagoon of Mystery. I think about things like this.

Now, I invite you to think back to May of 2018, where I ripped up and rebuilt the deck adjacent to the pool, renaming it the Hula Stage in the process. Most of the scrap wood left over from that rebuild was rotten, but several support beams were sound and salvageable.

From these, I was able to select two long 2x6 boards of approximately equal length. They had varying amounts of damage, but were generally devoid of rot or mold or fungus. In short, they were sound.

Before I could do anything with them, I had to remove two decades worth of screws, nails and random bits of metal that would do terrible, horrible things to any saw I used to cut the wood into usable sections. The took the better part of an afternoon, and I can assure you it was just as fun as it was when I was a pre-teen and my dad would take me out to some farm or other and make me spend the day pulling nails out of boards salvaged from some old barn or other. Which is to say, it's not fun at all.

Upon successfully denailing the boards, I cut them to equal lengths, then split one lengthwise using my table saw.

I then drilled pilot holes and used exterior wood screws to attached the split pieces to either side of the larger board, forming a U.

What'd I tell you? That's U if I ever saw one!

Next up was to bevel the edges, to make it look classy or something like that. Since I discovered how easy it is to bevel with my router, I bevel the shit outta everything.

After staining the wood with my go-to Minwax Special Walnut and applying several coats of Flood CFW UV weather protectant (it's western red cedar, which is rot resistant, but we all remember how neglected red cedar rotted like nobody's business during my deck rebuild) I added plastic-tipped furniture feet along the length of the bottom. This elevates the wood so it does not come into contact with the concrete patio. Concrete is a conduit for moisture, and moisture plus wood is a recipe for rot.

Remember all that bamboo I posted photos of at the top of this post? This is where we get the payoff. Some time over the winter I torched a bunch and then lined the culms up, using the U as a slotted base.

This is how the bamboo fits into the slotted base.

Here's another view. The base only keeps them stable front-to-back, but soon you'll see how the side-to-side is managed.

The culms vary in length, but they're mostly in the 8'-8'6" range. The ceiling here is 9' high, and the base adds 2"-3" total. After drilling pilot holes, and screwing large bicycle-hooks on either end of the ceiling, I added a bamboo culm as a cross beam. This serves the same purpose as the U base below to hold the bamboo stable.

Next, I drilled a hole through both the cross-beam and the vertical culm behind it.

Next, I tied the two culms together using fencing wire.

I then wired the tops of all the remaining vertical culms to the cross-beam. At this point I judged that drilling through all of them was an unnecessary step in over-engineering, so I just cross-tied each. That seemed to work just fine.

Next, it was time to cut bamboo to size for the next phase. Not all of the vertical culms are equally spaced. On either end, there's an open gap of roughly 16", and that space needs to be divided with horizontal bars. To cut bamboo to length, I use a fine-toothed saw, which makes narrow cuts and reduces splintering. Bamboo loves to splinter.

To ensure the ends of the bamboo cross pieces sit flush against the vertical culms, I pressed each end against the rounded front drum of my belt sander, which quickly cut a smooth, concave indentation.

I lined up the horizontal with the vertical, and marked where to drill.

I ran the fencing tie wire through the horizontal culm...

...then tied it securely to the vertical culm. The wire is rated for 20 pounds, so doubling it up gives me 40 pounds of leeway. I wouldn't recommend using this as a ladder, but for something I want to stand around and look pretty, it should do dandy.

I'd also added a lower cross-beam, about 3' off the ground. I filled in the 16" gap from the second cross-beam down with 3' lengths of bamboo. Since this was only for stability and the ties wouldn't be taking any stress, I went for fast and simple, using cheap jute twine to tie them. At some point I need to go back and weatherproof the twine, because jute's not terribly durable. On the other hand, it's easily replaced when necessary.

I tried tying a few of the 8' vertical culms to the second cross-beam with Manila rope, but it turned out to be so much simpler to just use more jute twine.

Now, we get to the reason for the 16" gap. Ceramic jade Chinese breezeway tiles have long been popular in the architecture of Chinese restaurants, but by the 1950s had found their way it tiki bars. The Mai Kai has them, as did the various Trader Vic's locations around the world. Today, it's a cool thing to have in a home tiki bar. It connects modern home bars to the historical lineage, so to speak. Alas, these are not common, and can be quite expensive. The best deal I could find was $40 each from some folks in Florida. Since the tiles are heavy ceramic, shipping was pretty steep. Not having the free cash to order everything I needed at once, I settled on getting two at a time. The first pair, I ordered November 2018. The final pair came to me this past September. Again, it'd be super-easy to just load up all our credit cards to get the building and decorative materials we need to finish the build, but there's a lot to be said for pay-as-you-go.

Trying to hang the tiles initially proved a challenge. Because they're heavy, I couldn't just hold one in place while I wired it in. It was awkward, and I needed two hands to tire wire securing the tile. I finally remembered I had a pack of zip ties, and these proved easy to use as a temporary hanger.

With the jade tile held in place by the zip ties, I was able to secure it with the fencing wire. I tried a number of different variations on how to tie it into place, but ultimately a simple loop worked best. Don't over-think it. I always over-think it.

Once I had the jade tile wired on all sides (three wires through each hole on the top, because that's the load-bearing side) I added Manila rope to cover the wires.

Here's the thing: If you've looked online or been to the Mai Kai, rope-tied jade tiles are easy to see. Unfortunately, all you see is the front, which is designed to be the most aesthetically pleasing. For the life of me, I could find no reference anywhere to how these ropes are tied, what knots are used, etc. What followed was several days of me trying to figure out how to make this work and not look terrible. I tried several variations--some quite clever, if I do say so myself--but nothing that rose above "Good in theory, terrible in practice."

This picture contains so much cursing and frustration. You have no idea.

Ultimately, I made peace with the fact my knots would not be elegant. I settled for functional, with the idea of making them as non-ugly as possible. For the main rope holding the tile to the bamboo, I used quarter-inch Manila rope, and tied the ends together in a square not inside the loops. Generally, I made four loops for each tie site. By placing the knot inside, it was mostly hidden from external view.

Then came the aesthetic secondary layer of rope, which wrapped around the rope already holding the tile to the bamboo. I had the notion that I'd be able to tuck this knot inside as well, but try as I might, I simply could not get that to work. There wasn't enough room, and the rope wasn't flexible enough for the space. I ended up using sisal rope for this, mainly because I'd run short on Manila rope. But the sisal rope was slightly easier to tie, and the lighter color made a nice contrast against the Manila rope. Ultimately, I tied the sisal in a square knot on the back side, which is facing out toward the yard where it would be less viewed.

To ensure all of these square knots stayed together and the whole thing didn't abruptly unravel on me, I slathered each knot with Shoe Goo, a strong, flexible glue that reminds me of rubber cement. It penetrated the fiber weave of the rope for a good grip, yet maintained flexibility. I don't know how it will hold up to the weather, but for now it's working well. There probably exists a knot that would've been a better choice for this particular task, but knots were always one of my worst areas in Boy Scouts. I think it's good to recognize one's shortcomings.

Once the glue set, I went to every knot and using tin snips (really massive scissors, if you don't already know) cut off the excess rope beyond the knot. To my surprise, this actually worked out fairly well. The resulting knots aren't nearly as glaring as I'd feared they would be, and the knots themselves are still holding fast.

I'm happy with the end result.

The ties between tiles with interceding bamboo cross-pieces worked out particularly nice.

And this is how it looks with the booth moved into position. I have to say how crazy close this looks to my original vision I had for this end of the Lagoon of Mystery almost three years ago now. The bamboo doesn't cut off airflow and isn't a full privacy screen, but in the evening it feels like the outside world at that end is held at bay. That's the effect I was hoping for. Sometimes halting, flailing efforts generate good results. This end isn't entirely finished yet, though. By next spring I hope to add a floating deck beneath the booth (more transitions!) and I need something to go there in the middle of that bamboo screen. It calls for a large mask or some other accent piece, no? On the opposite side, I need to build a thatched awning, because those jade tiles need protection and one very brief rain shower we had a couple of weeks back showed that area will get thoroughly soaked without it (the roof on that end of the house ends abruptly, without the protective overhang afforded the rest of the covered patio). There's still much work to be done, but this feels like a real milestone in the ongoing build-out of the Lagoon.

Now Playing: Tikiyaki Orchestra Aloha Baby
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Sunday, October 13, 2019

The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance episode 3

Episode 3: What Was Sundered and Undone

Alas, I still cannot get anyone to watch this with me. I shall have to soldier on alone.

Obligatory Plot Summary: Deet and Hup arrive at Stonewood clan. There's this strange furnace/pyre filled with weapons. Stonewood seems to be the most militant of the Gelfling clans. They're also rude, condescending toward Deet because she is of the lowly Grottan clan, and Hup because he is a mere Podling. Naturally, a bar fight ensues and Hup, brave and foolish as he is, winds up arrested. Because she is Grottan, Deet is denied an audience with the Stonewood clan's maudra to deliver her warning about the Darkening and to plead for Hup's release. Later, she has a brief encounter with Rian, who has ditched his castle guard garments as word has spread across Thra that he is wanted for murder. Aughra confronts the Skeksis in the Castle of the Crystal, but they laugh at her, completely unafraid of her and her accusations. Aughra leaves in defeat, but not before discovering the Skeksis have completely corrupted the Crystal of Truth. In Ha'rar, the All-Maudra sends her second daughter, Tavra, a skilled warrior, out on a landstrider to capture Rian. Her youngest daughter, Brea, is sent to the Order of Lesser Service for one year as punishment for erasing the mind of the Sifa clan's Cadia last episode. The eldest daughter, broods and complains that she's not appreciated enough. Brea is horrified to learn that part of her Lesser Service involves bathing Podlings who have no desire to be bathed. She flees the Order and sneaks back into Ha'rar, stealing the "brightest jewel" from the All-Maudra's throne room--a glowing unamoth chrysalis. She takes it to Onica of the Sifa clan, who prompts it to hatch. The unamoth flies back to the All-Maudra's throne room, where it merges with the throne to reveal a secret passage to a hidden chamber below.

Musings: Several things have been hovering around the edges of my thoughts through prior episodes, and this episode brought them to the forefront. Firstly, Gelfling society is unapologeticly racist. Each clan, in general, views itself as superior to other clans (with the possible exception of Grottans, but that's a skewed sample, because Deet's the only Grottan we've seen much of). And pretty much everyone on Thra treat Podlings like shit. I mean, what the hell? Skeksis are cruel and enslave the Podlings, Aughra insults and belittles them, Gelflings dominate them in a paternalistic, condescending way. In the original movie, we saw Podling society as festive when it wasn't cowering from the Skeksis. Here, they're mostly comic relief, but it doesn't make much sense. There is a Podling society, but it's treated as incompetent and childlike, unable to fend for themselves. Why do Gelflings need to bathe them? Podlings build their own homes and villages and provide for themselves. We see no Podling leadership structure. Is that because they have none, or because Gelflings allow them none? It's troubling, because Hup is easily my favorite character. No, he's not entirely competent, but he has agency. Armed only with a spoon, he'll go into battle to defend Deet. And he's smart enough to know some of the Gelfling language in addition to his native tongue. He also knows when he's being disrespected and is quick to anger and trade insults with his Gelfling "betters." In fact, Hup is a little too free with his insults. He's not diplomatic in the slightest. This makes me think he's lived all his life as a second-class citizen, is well aware of this status, and rebels against it. That doesn't speak well for Gelflings.

The other thing that jumps out at me is that Age of Resistance is way more metaphysical than the movie where magic is concerned. The movie had magic, but it was either passive or systemic. Here, we have magic actively engaging with the mundane world to provide information and direction to our characters--mostly Brea. First, we had the magical whirlwind in the library from episode one that showed Brea the mystical symbol. Now, we've got a magical moth that merges with a stone throne to open up a secret passage. What's more, the Sifa seemed to know how to activate this magic, but didn't seem to know anything more beyond being uncomfortable with the implications. From a logical standpoint, I'm having problems with it, because this intrusive magic, while offering cool eyeball kicks, essentially amounts to info dumps to send characters further along the plot. Yes, Brea's curiosity is uncovering these ancient secrets (Gelflings seem, by and large, a profoundly uncurious lot) but all in all it strikes me as so many plot coupons. There are some sophisticated themes here, but they're being presented here via clunky, unsophisticated writing.

Finally, if Aughra is near immortal and the original Keeper of the Crystal, what actual power does she have? She seems impotent beyond her imposing bluster. The Skeksis seem to fear her one moment then dismiss her the next. And if they're draining Gelflings for essence because they're "Closest to Thra," wouldn't Aughra's near-immortal essence be that much more powerful, as she seems to predate Gelflings, Podlings and everything else on Thra? Yes, this show provokes more questions than it answers...

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Friday, October 11, 2019

Friday Night Videos

Friday Night Videos

No, it isn't "Bohemian Rhapsody," but in the pantheon of Queen songs, "Headlong" gets unfairly overlooked. I really got into rock during Queen's hiatus, so this single, which came out in 1991, was my first real exposure to the band before Wayne's World. I quite liked it. Unfortunately, the video for the song is much more conventional, and far less gonzo, than most anything else they did. On the bright side, seeing Freddie Mercury dressed as a suburban dad and Brian May wearing a Bart Simpson shirt makes up for a lot.

Previously on Friday Night Videos... Rick Ocasek.

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Wednesday, October 09, 2019

The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance episode 2

Episode 2: Nothing is Simple Anymore.

I sat down to watch episode 2 with a beer and lowered expectations. After thinking on the debut episode, my initial impressions were reaffirmed: It took too long in introducing too many characters, and dawdled about before introducing anything resembling a plot. And the technical aspects of the production were inconsistent beyond the intrusive CGI. In some scenes, the puppets felt very much like living creatures, whereas in others they came off as stiff latex castings. I tried to get two of my children to watch with me. My 20-year-old daughter considered it for a moment before losing interest. My 13-year-old son watched about 30 seconds before announcing it was "the creepiest thing I've ever seen" and fleeing. I guess I jinxed it by suggesting they watch with me--anything Dad's interested in is, by default, inherently uncool.

Obligatory Plot Summary: Aughra wakes up from a thousand-year sleep, or something like that, where she did the Thra version of astral projection across the cosmos. She senses something terribly wrong with Thra, and vows to find out what it is and set it right. Elsewhere, Deet, the naive underground-dwelling Grottan Gelfling, wanders across Thra with cloth tied over her eyes as shade against the bright sunlight. She's blissfully unaware of any dangerous creatures or threats, until attacked by a Spitter, a spider-like creature I suspect eventually morph into Garthim. Deet is saved, sort of, by the heroic yet incompetent bravery of Hup, a Podling armed with a spoon who aspires to become a Paladin. In Ha'rar, the Gelfling capitol, Princess Brea visits the Sifa Gelfling to decipher the mystery of a mystical symbol she discovered last episode (yeah, I forgot to mention that--in the royal library, books started flying around and a big glowing symbol appeared to her. Plot coupon, anyone?). The leader of the Sifa tried to dupe her into drinking a memory-wipe potion, but Brea turns the tables on him in a scene evocative of Vizzini and Westley from Princess Bride. His apprentice talls Brea to bring the All-Maudra's brightest jewel the following night to have her questions answered. Back at the Castle of the Crystal, Rian is hunted for Mira's murder. He dreamfasts with his friend, Gurjin, to show him the truth. Alas, Gelflings cannot pass on memories of another through dreamfasting, so Gurjin cannot convince anyone else of the Skeksis' treachery. The two hatch a plan to steal the remaining vial of Mira's essence as proof of what the Skeksis have done (I just remembered that I left out of my previous synopsis that the Skeksis have been drawing life energy from the Crystal the previous millennia, but they have now drained the Crystal dry, necessitating the switch to Gelfling juice to fuel their immortality). Whilst trying to steal the essence, Rian and Gurjin are caught up in a confrontation between the Chamberlain and Scientist, the former who is trying to steal the essence for his own use. Gurjin is captured but Rian escapes with the essence. When the two Skeksis report what has happened to the Emperor, Chamberlain twists the events to lay all the blame on the Scientist, who is punished by having Peeper Beetles gouge out one of his eyes.

Musings: Holy shit! That Peeper Beetle scene was freaking intense, even if the gore is implied rather than graphic. And I just realized Mark Hamill is the voice of Scientist! He's doing a helluva job in the role, although, when you get down to it, all of the Skeksis are pretty stupid. They're evil, but a buffoonish evil, which makes them hard to take seriously as bad guys, until they unleash the Peeper Beetles. Ugh. I'm happy to report this episode is much better than the first. Motivations and actions make sense. The characters are much easier to identify with and follow. Plot is happening. There is agency from multiple quarters. The return of Aughra is welcome, although she does very little beyond berating a hapless Podling. Deet is perhaps the most enjoyable character, best characterized as a tree-hugging hippie chick. Were all the other characters human, she'd be the flighty elf.

The problem of bathos continues, however. The Skeksis, as much as they're built up at this menacing evil, just don't come off as competent enough to be bloodthirsty tyrants. The court intrigue we see is sophomoric at best. Their subterfuge is clunky. The Chamberlain's Iago-style wordplay is the equivalent of schoolyard, "Let's you and him fight!" Considering the tone of the original movie, the Skeksis shouldn't spout menace or sophistication of a Hannibal Lecter, but here they're not even Dick Dastardly. Heck, rising to the level of Boris and Natasha would be an improvement. At this point, considering the incompetent infighting and the Peeper Beetle incident, I'm having a hard time seeing how the Skeksis prevail if the Gelflings do indeed turn against them as the series title promises.

But yeah, episode 2 is a dramatic improvement over its predecessor. I'll definitely watch more.

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Tuesday, October 08, 2019

The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance episode 1

Episode 1: End. Begin. All the Same.

I'm the target demographic for Netflix's new series, The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance, I suppose. I was wowed by it back when it first hit theaters, and I've owned copies on VHS and DVD in the ensuing years. I was stunned by its technical accomplishment and the sheer artistry and imagination that went into the production. Labyrinth hasn't stuck with me as much. Still, I never thought of The Dark Crystal as having much of an influence on my writing until I stopped to think about it, and realized, oh year, there's a bit here, and another bit there, creeping into my work. Particularly early on, which I wrote more fantasy. So maybe I should give it more credit than I have in the past, hmm?

That said, I didn't jump for joy when the series dropped last month. I certainly wasn't as excited as I had been when rumors circulated years ago about a sequel series. Age of Resistance is a prequel, and that left me skeptical. Don't get me wrong. I love the concept of prequels, exploring the distant past of some particular setting, meeting new characters and getting a new appreciate for the legacy and worldbuilding. Where prequels fail is when creators tie them too closely to the original work, so that said prequel exists solely to set up the events we've already seen played out. That would seem to be the case with Age of Resistance-- we are introduced to Gelfling society at its apex, but know that any resistance is doomed to failure, and Gelfling genocide is inevitable. Couple that with disappointed comments online from people who loved The Dark Crystal but turned the new series off before the end of the first episode... I was not encouraged. But since then I've heard positive, even enthusiastic word from people whose opinions I respect, so my interest was piqued.

Obligatory Plot Summary: The series opens with a voiceover giving the general state of affairs on Thra, the world whereupon this story is set. There are seven Gelfling tribes, arranged in a hierarchy, and they owe their allegiance to the Skeksis, who are keepers of the Crystal of Truth. The Skeksis arrived in the distant past, taking guardianship of the Crystal from Mother Aughra, who thought this was just keen as it allowed her to spirit walk across the universe using a spectacularly oversized orrery. Deet, an underground-dwelling Gelfling of the Grottan variety, is attacked by previously-friendly creatures, and learns there is an unnatural sickness, "The Darkening," spreading through Thra. She goes to warn other Gelfling tribes. In the Gelfling capital, a tithing ceremony to the Skeksis plays out in a way that shows the Skeksis are needlessly cruel, and the All-Maudra, essentially high queen of the Gelflings, has been corrupted by the Skeksis and compromised by greed. Her youngest daughter, Princess Brea, sees through the charade. Back at the Castle of the Crystal, the Skeksis Scientist and Chamberlain capture one of the Gelfling honor guards, Mira, and use a machine to corrupt the Crystal's power and drain Mira's life essence, which the Skeksis then consume to prolong their own lives. Rian, Mira's Gelfling lover, sees this happen and flees in horror, but not before he's discovered by the Skeksis.

Musings: Wow. I absolutely understand why people gave up on this one so quickly. This first episode is wildly uneven, to put it kindly. Many characters are introduced, but there's not much of an opportunity for the viewer to make much of a connection with any of them. The episode is therefore reduced to a bunch of stuff happening on the screen. The puppetry is spectacular at times, and at others it comes off as crude and primitive. CGI is used throughout, and when it draws attention to itself, it is quite jarring. The whole episode felt rushed, but at the same time, not much happened. Mira was the only Gelfling I had much interest in, and she was promptly offed in a scenario that doesn't count as fridging, but does tread that cliched ground where the woman dies to provide the male lead motivation. Try as I might, I don't see any reason why the roles couldn't have been reversed, with Rian dying and Mira fleeing. There's a lot of cliche in the characters at this early stage, and that stands out--in the original movie, the whole world was fleshed out in the first 15 minutes and we were well into the plot. By the 90 minute mark, an entire epic story had been told. In this iteration, after 50 minutes we've only scratched the surface of the narrative.

The most jarring moment comes in the opening minutes, when the narrator, in a glaring break with continuity from the movie, informs the viewers that the Skeksis appeared one day from parts unknown, and took possession of the Castle of the Crystal from Aughra. There's no mention of the Crystal cracking, no reference to the Mystics or the urSkesk. It feels very much like a new set of creators coming in that A) didn't pay that much attention to the original, or B) made arbitrary changes to suit their own narrative choices. Having pondered this for some time, I suspect this apparent continuity error was made with intent, that the voice-over narrator is unreliable, or rather, is speaking from the point of view of the Gelflings, parroting what is believed to be true. We shall see.

Ultimately, episode 1 is a beautiful 50 minutes of television, but not a terribly engaging one. I'm inclined to watch more out of general curiosity, not because the story compels me.

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Friday, October 04, 2019

Friday Night Videos

Friday Night Videos

Rick Ocasek died a few weeks back, and I've been remiss at acknowledging his passing here. There was a time in high school when I was super-into the Cars. They dominated the radio with Heartbeat City, but being the obsessive that I am, I backtracked and listened to The Cars and Candy-O incessantly, and was particularly fixated by "Moving In Stereo" (hats off to Columbia Music Club for enabling my obsessions!). That said, I'm not sharing a Cars song today. That's too easy. Nor am I going with "Emotions in Motion," which is probably Ocasek's best-known solo song. No, I'm digging deep and sharing a track most Cars fans are probably completely unaware of, but Ocasek's distinctive sound instantly makes it his own. Yes, I'm talking about his cover of "Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah" from the album Mad About the Mouse. The Cars had a lot of bizarre videos, but I doubt any of them have prepared you for this. You're welcome.

Previously on Friday Night Videos... David Byrne.

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Thursday, October 03, 2019

Texas Tiki Week: Tiki Market

With the arrival of Saturday, so too came my favorite part of Texas Tiki Week: The tiki marketplace! It seems like those folks living on the West Coast have some sort of marketplace every week or so. Their embarrassment of riches in that area is just obscene. For us folks living in Texas, however, tiki marketplace comes but once a year (okay, fine. I'll grant you that Dallas Tiki Week has one as well, but that one's a four-hour drive for me, as opposed to 40 minutes). Tiki marketplace is an opportunity to engage in tiki sensory overload. This year, it was at Contigo, where it was two years ago when I attended my first marketplace. This year, instead of taking up a corner of the parking lot, the marketplace occupied the courtyard and a large section of the interior, as a hedge against fickle Texas weather.

I have to say, after some cursory doubts, the arrangement turned out to be fantastic. This was the largest marketplace ever. I'm not privy to the actual numbers, but I'd say there were twice as many vendors as last year and easily triple the number of shoppers. More important than the raw numbers, though, was the sheer diversity of the vendors. There weren't 20 people peddling vintage clothes, or 17 pushing mugs. There were so many different people with a broad array of wares. Yes, vintage clothing and mugs were well-represented, but there were wood carvers, cookies (!), hairdressers, travel agents(!), artists, lamp-makers, jewelry-makers... the selection was overwhelming. And quality across the board.

I know I'll leave out people if I try to list everyone vending, but I gotta try to list everyone vending. I could've happily blown thousands of dollars in a very short amount of time, but alas, I did not have thousands of dollars available for said blowing. Vendors included (in no particular order):

I know I'm leaving some out, so anyone who sees an omission may message me and I'll update that list. But damn, that's an impressive lineup!

Sadly, this is my final report. I wasn't able to make it to the Hale Pele popup that evening, which really stinks, because Hale Pele was the first "real" tiki bar I ever visited (after a string of unimpressive pretenders) and got me hooked on the whole thing. We were also unable to make the Lake Austin cruise on Sunday, which concluded Texas Tiki Week. This also stinks, because we really like the folks behind Quiet Village, who provided the cocktails on the cruise. I sincerely hope the cruise becomes a tradition, because I'd hate to think I missed my chance!

That said, let me offer my completely biased and partial critique of Texas Tiki Week. First up, this was probably the best one yet. Again, I have no idea of how much money was raised for USBGATX, bur from a purely spectator's point of view, the week was ambitious and fun. And the beverage sponsors! Holy moly, there was an impressive lineup of quality spirits on parade this year! Nothing against Jaegermeister, but the broadened palate was nice.

Nothing's perfect, and there were issues. Having so many seminars during the day, during the week, has got to cut into attendance. I could only get away from work a few times, and missed several seminars I'd have liked to see. Shannon Mustipher's seminar, for instance--I've heard her on so many podcasts this past year that she feels like a close, personal friend, and it would've been nice to get an autographed copy of her book. John Mulder's seminar had a nice turnout, but I know of several people who'd have liked to attend but couldn't because of the timing. Also, I recall that far more people participated in the paint-your-own-tiki-mug event last year, which not surprisingly, was held in the evening. This is a nifty offering, and I hope it stays as an ongoing tradition.

A significant part of the problem stems from the fact that, unlike the big annual tiki events like Tiki Caliente, Tiki Oasis, Luau at the Lake or Hukilau, Texas Tiki Week doesn't have a physical base of operations for the events to center around. They're dependent on the kindness and generosity of the various, disparate venues around town to cooperate and provide facilities for the various programming events. This can come up and burn the organizers, as we saw this year when Anthem abruptly left Texas Tiki Week high and dry less than a day prior to the Rainey Street Crawl. And as I said in a previous post, Rainey Street was overrun by a party crowd that didn't give two shakes about tiki.

A partial solution is obvious, if not simple: Get some dedicated tiki venues to build the week's events around. If I won a hundred million in the lottery tomorrow, I could build a Polynesian-themed resort hotel and we'd all be sipping mai tais by the pool thinking how awesome like is. Short of that, we have to depend on those intrepid die-hards who keep plugging along, trying to open tiki bars locally ("localy" being a relative term, as I don't live in, or particularly near, Austin). Now, there's no way Tiki Tatsu-Ya could accommodate everyone participating in Texas Tiki Week next year. Heck, if the fates smile on us and Quiet Village opens by summer 2020, that still wouldn't be enough venue space. But that would provide an anchor, a nexus, a base of operations to serve as a reference point throughout the week. Heck, assuming the Esquire Tavern group gets their Bamboo Ben-designed tiki bar on the River Walk up and running in the next 11 months, between them and Hot Joy, there's no reason why San Antonio can't be a serious participant in Texas Tiki Week (yes, it's origins are in support of USBGATX, but it's not called Austin Tiki Week, now is it?). I could envision a party bus from Austin to SA. I can also envision a home bar tour around Austin, as I know there are enough impressive home bars there to blow the minds of some of these out-of-towners that come in thinking Texas is a tiki wasteland (which it was not too long ago, but not quite so much anymore).

My carping from the peanut gallery aside, I applaud all of the volunteers who made this thing happen. They did an outstanding job, and did so while facing down a daunting array of obstacles and SNAFUs--only some of which I'm sure I'm aware of. Having been ringleader in my share of non-profit events, I know it's a thankless job where success or failure is measured by the enjoyment of others. In this case, many, many others experienced a tremendous amount of enjoyment this year. Kudos to everyone involved--you deserve all the accolades coming your way.

Texas Tiki Week: Opening Night
Texas Tiki Week: Eekum Bookum
Texas Tiki Week: Rainey Street Crawl

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