Monthly Archives: November 2009

The Sweetest Hereafter

It’s started again. They found four bodies. Kids. Just like before. They found the first one around midnight. Fat kid. Say he drowned. The second one turned up at the resevoir. Naked. Bloated. Discolored. She’d bled out through a thousand little cuts all over her body, like she’d been through a cusinart.
An hour later, they found the third one. Her body had been left at the landfill, half buried in garbage. The others, they were nobodies, but she was one of those heiress types. A couple more years, and she’d have had her own reality show. Trashy pop album. Celebrity sex tape. The works. Instead, she’s hip deep in shit with a broken neck. They can’t find her dad either, but the press doesn’t care about that yet. Not when they’ve got a serial child murderer to fawn over.
It was dawn when the last body turned up. Another boy, just like I knew it would be. The news is saying he was tortured, medieval-style, his small body broken on a rack. I know better. I know he thought he was having the time of his life. Having a great adventure. Right up until his arms popped out of their sockets.
Maybe things would be different if I’d stayed with him, all those years ago. Maybe I could have played along, played his game. Let him dress me up like his little Mini-me. Maybe it would have stopped. Or maybe I’d have ended up like my friends.
Friends? No, not really. I’ve spent the last twenty years telling myself they were, because it was easier than the truth. The truth is, I hated the others. Thought they deserved what they got. I didn’t get it, not till later. They were just kids for Christ’s sake. They weren’t perfect, but who the fuck is? I can tell you, I wasn’t no prize. Just some cheery little shit who could smile and look pretty and not give a fuck as long as it was happening to other people.
It was only later that I got it. That I understood what he’d done to the other kids. What he wanted to do to me. So I ran. Dyed my hair and lived on the streets for a couple of years. I never went home again, because I knew he’d find me. I read in the papers what happened to my family a couple of weeks later.
No one ever linked it to him. No one ever linked what happened to my family to what happened to the other kids. I don’t know why. No one’s going to link these ones to him either. No one’s even going to suspect him. But I know he did it. I know. And I have to stop him. Because I’m the only one who can.
Willy Wonka must die.

You sunk my giant vulture! (The Giant Claw)

Hey all. I’d been hoping to make my eschatological reviews come a little faster these days, but as it turns out, I actually work for a living and am increasingly unwilling to commit the time to watch anything so long as a movie and give it my full attention and snark. I’m going to buckle down and turn that around, but don’t expect me to stick to anything like a schedule just yet.
In my unwillingness to commit to a whole movie, I’ve been watching a lot of short web originals, getting all caught up on the works of the folks over at Channel Awesome, the YouTube series “Is it a Good Idea To Microwave This?“, and the collected works of, home of The Angry Video Game Nerd.
Now, some Halloween or other, James Rolfe, who in real life is an actual person who does things other than swearing at video games which are almost as old as he is, did a top ten list of the best giant monster movies. I was pretty well familiar with everything on the list — giant monster is really just a supergenre of giant robot, and you know how I feel about giant robots — but there was one movie there which I’d never heard of: a movie that earned a place of honor in the list for the sheer craptacularity of the monster’s design, and the strange habit the film has of comparing the creature to a battleship. So, I sought this movie out, and I’m about to watch it, and you’re coming with me.
The Giant Claw
dir. Fred F. Sears
We open with a globe spinning in some smoke. Some might think this is meant to actually be an FX shot of the earth in space, but I am fairly sure that even in 1957, they knew that the map lines were not visible from space.

RADAR!A narrator drones on for a bit about SCIENCE! and TECHNOLOGY! and shows us a radar installation to prove he means it. I do not think this has anything to do with the story, but it’s hard to make a feature length film out of five minutes of Giant Vulture footage.
These radar operators are concerned, because Radar tells them that their test plane is at 9,000 feet, but the pilot’s altimeter says 10,000. This is quickly ascribed to the fact that they’ve let a WOMAN be involved in the complex mathematical calculations needed to make Radar work.

Casual Misogyny Count: 1

They order Mitch The Pilot to perform some maneuver, which triggers ominous music as he… buzzes the radar base. I guess this was meant to be a cat scare? Anyway, the stunt spooks Miss Caldwell, prompting the Manly Radar Men to exchange a quick, knowing look that basically shouts “Women. Typical.”
Casual Misogyny Count: 2

Miss Caldwell, being Just A Dame, thought that pilots weren’t allowed to do that, and the Radar men explain that, while Air Force pilots aren’t allowed to do that, Mitch is actually an Electrical Engineer, with no flight training to speak of, which makes it okay. Miss Caldwell bizarrely suggests that Mitch needs to be spanked like a three year old, but as she’s Just A Woman, she neglects that the radio is still on, he hears her, and suggests that a spanking is just the sort of action he’s into.

CMC: 3
I have a feeling you’re going to be seeing this picture a lot

Battleship Analogy Count: 1At this point, the narrator takes over, explaining, “A Radar officer. A mathematician and systems analyst. A Radar operator. A couple of plotters. People doing a job well, efficiently. Serious, having fun. Doing a job. Situation, normal for the moment.” Then, he bizarrely launches into a weather report, having found this film so boring that he’s forgotten that he isn’t just reading the news: “Date, the 17th of the month. Sky cloudy, overcast. Visibility limited. Time, 1332 hours. A significant moment in history. A moment when an electronics engineer named Mitchell MacAfee saw something in the sky.” And we see Mitch react with dull surprise as something blurry flies by his plane. Instead of having this exciting scene acted out, the narrator just tells us what’s happening as we watch the actors wordlessly react. As Mitch turns his plane, the unidentified flying object turns too, and the narrator, for the first of several times, pulls out an analogy to explain how big this thing is: “Something, he didn’t know what, but something as big as a battleship had just flown over and past him.”

Battleship Analogy Count: 2They scramble interceptors, but don’t find anything. Which causes the radar officer to declare Mitch to be a liar, and threatens to have him arrested and ruin his career. Thanks to Mitch’s “joke” — which the officer is implacably convinced is what it was — not only didn’t they find what he saw, but one of their planes vanished. So clearly, there was NOTHING OUT THERE and Mitch was LYING, LYING I TELL YOU. Mitch maintains his honesty while the officer gets a phone call, and Miss Caldwell warns Mitch that he’s “Already caused enough trouble with his flying battleship nonsense.” The call, however, exonerates Mitch, as a passenger jet has just gone missing shortly after the pilot radioed in about a UFO. So now he believes Mitch entirely.
Fickle!Mitch and the Girl take a flight back to New York, but the Weather Started Getting Rough — which surpises Mitch because he “Thought the poop on the weather was we’d have it soft all the way to New York.” This film seems weirdly weather-obsessed. Their flight, Zebra Love 759 (By the way, “Zebra Love” is my favorite Equinesploitation hero), moves to a higher altitude to avoid the storm, but this runs them afoul of the invisible-to-radar flying battleship thing. Battleship Analogy Count: 3The pilot calls in a UFO, but is then incapacitated when the ship is harshly buffetted despite the instruments not registering “a hatful of wind” (This movie has no idea how metaphors work), and the plane crashes. As it turns out, if your plane goes into a nose dive from 12,000 feet, you won’t be hurt on the landing even if you’re not strapped in, and will be in fine condition to run from the plane before it explodes about 40 seconds after impact. Mitch blames the crash on “A Flying battleship that wasn’t there,” just to put Miss Caldwell in her place for doubting him. So you know what that means…

Casual Misogyny Count: 4

A painful French Canadian Trapper stereotype rescues them and offers them some of his moonshine to occupy them until the Mounties arrive. Miss Caldwell, who really should get off her high horse, explains that their plane collided with Battleship Analogy Count: 4“Nothing so domestic as a flying saucer, officer; just a flying battleship,” along with a pointed look to Mitch to indicate that, because, as a woman, she is the Designated Idiot of this movie, she still doesn’t believe him. He then gets an angry phone call from the general, leading Miss Caldwell to remind him that, “Flying battleship, pink elephant, same difference.” (I am not going to bother showing the counter again), and Mitch angrily points out that he only said that it looked like a battleship, not that it was a battleship. Which would entirely justify him, except that we’re eventually going to see this thing.
The unheard General accuses Mitch of having crashed a plane and badly injured the pilot as a joke. Fortunately, Pierre’s applejack calms Mitch down before he says something impolitic. Pierre goes out to check the animals, but then screams and has to be rescued. He wakes up screaming about the carcagne, the French Canadian equivalent of a Banshee — fortunately, both Mitch and Miss Caldwell dimly remember obscure bits of French Canadian folklore. But the plane is there for our American heroes, so they leave Pierre to cry himself to sleep, somehow failing to notice that in the matte painting of Pierre’s backyard is a clawprint the size of a battleship’s foot if a battleship had feet like a chicken.
Casual Misogyny Count: 5

On the plane, Mitch notices that Miss Caldwell is asleep, and so decides to take advantage of her. I swear to God I am not making this up. She wakes up with his tongue down her throat and decides that she’s okay with that, because, after all, she is a woman, and can not resist a man of Mitch’s undoubtable charms. They have a weird talk about baseball which is meant to be an analogy for them hooking up, and she tells him in no uncertain terms that he is not going to get any farther than second base, but since this movie thinks that a giant bird is kinda like a battleship, for all I can tell, they’re using “second base” here to mean a threesome. When she says something about having to follow the “pattern” (First the minor league, then the majors. Again, maybe this means he needs to actually woo her before he can stick his tongue down her throat, or maybe he means that he needs to give her a reach-around. God only knows), though, Mitch gets as confused about the metaphor as I am, and starts mumbling “pattern” to himself over and over. He suddenly demands she give him an orthographic map, and she gives him… A mercator map.

Mercator != Orthographic
I’m guessing he just picked a random word he knew went with “map”

He marks some ENTIRELY RANDOM spots on the map, and then draws a spiral through them, which “proves” that the UFO is working to “a perfect pattern in time and distance!” . Again, she taunts him that to fly that distance in that time would take the speed of a… FLYING BATTLESHIP Battleship Analogy Count: 5 She taunts him for thinking something so silly as that the sudden rash of now five crashed airplanes, each of which was linked to a UFO sighting, could possibly be anything more than coincidence. Yeah! What a maroon!
Mitch concedes that he’s being foolish, and they go back to making out. I don’t think this merits a ring of the Casual Misogyny Counter bell, though, just because it seems less like him taking advantage of her womanish weakness and more like her trying to shut him up.
Battleship Analogy Count: 6 As they play tonsil hockey, the narrator cuts in with a new weather report: Partly cloudy with a chance of battleship. As a recovery team flies to the site of Mitch’s latest crash, the pilot spots a swift-moving fuzzy blur, this time making weird monkey noises. Unfortunately, the narrator ruins the surprise by telling the audience that the pilot radios in the report of the UFO (we see the pilot do this, but do not hear what he says. Instead, the narrator just tells us): A bird as big as a battleship was about to attack the plane. And it is here, dear readers, that we finally get our first look at the monster:

The bird eats the plane, then, just to be contrary, also gobbles up the parachuting survivors. Or, rather, the bird bits the toy plane, and then an unconvincing process shot of the bird flies up behind an actor hanging from the ceiling.
The next morning, Mitch gets woken up early by an air force officer, as the general wants him. Mitch cautions the officer to “Keep your shirt on, I’ll go put my pants on,” and then shows his random spiral drawing on a DEFINITELY NOT ORTHOGRAPHIC map to the general.
Battleship Analogy Count: 7 The general tells Mitch about two more crashes which (surprise surprise) fit his pattern perfectly, though he still refers to the whole idea as some kind of crazy joke Mitch is pulling on them — he puts enough disbelief in the word “theorhetical” in front of “pattern” when he says it with enough force that you can hear the scare quotes around it. The general explains that the pilot had described the UFO as “a bird… as big as a battleship!” Mitch scoffs at the very idea, which seems small of Mitch. The general asks Mitch’s opinion as an electronics expert on the feasibility of a bird as big as a battleship, because this is a 50s monster movie, and one SCIENCEtm is very much like another.

My favorite instance of the Very 50s Attitude Toward Science was from the classic Twilight Zone episode “Little Girl Lost”. In this episode, parents wake up in the middle of the night to find their young daughter missing. Now, it turns out that she fell through a freak tear in the fabric of space and time into the FOURTH DIMENSION, so in retrospect, they mde the right move, but there, at that first moment of waking up and finding your child missing, what was their reaction? Dad immediately, without even thinking about it, says, “I’ll call Ted: he’s a scientist, he’ll know what to do!”

The general realizes that of all the men who have seen the bird, only Mitch is still alive — which, Mitch realizes, “Makes me the chief cook and bottle-washer of the birdwatching society,” because no one in this movie has the slightest idea how to construct anything resembling a cogent metaphor. But Mitch didn’t get a good look at the thing, and wishes he had a camera. This makes Miss Caldwell — who I think might be named “Sally”, and will proceed from that hypothesis because I am getting tired of typing out “Miss Caldwell” — remember that they used balloon-mounted cameras to calibrate their radar for the curvature of the earth, and therefore might have gotten a picture of this giant bird. But what really interests me in this scene is this:

Look in the background
Can’t make it out? Here’s a close-up:
Holy crap!
I’m not just imagining this, right? That’s the Starship Enterprise, mounted on the general’s bookshelf. Compare:
2009 Enterprise

They bring in the film from the camera balloons, and see… Nothing. And then… Nothing… And then… A tiny little bird. And then… The same bird, closer. And then… HOLY SHIT IT’S A GIANT VULTURE COMING RIGHT FOR US.
I plan to make this joke a lot too.The general freaks the hell out and passes the buck along to his superior general. His superior general, using the wisdom accumulated from his decades of experience, looks at the film and concludes: “Yep, it’s a bird all right.” He then yells at Mitch for the fact that it’s impossible for something to be invisible to Radar (Radar is a blameless, holy creature), and Mitch gets defensive. But the previous General tells him to calm down, because no one’s accusing him of anything. Except for the entire movie thus far, in which they were. General #2 then gives General #1 a hug. No, Really.

Incidentally, out the general’s window is a matte painting of the Capitol building to esablish that these events take place in Washington DC. Now, I know a thing or two about parallax and perspective geometry, and I think I can safely say based on the visual evidence that the General’s office is on the third or fourth floor of the Ulysses S Grant memorial. Which is a statue.
The general turns on the radio so that our heroes can hear the full force of the USA kill the bird, which they will obviously do with ease, because, after all, it’s just a big bird. One of tie pilots catches sight of the thing and comments, “I’ll never call my mother-in-law an old crow again!”

Casual Misogyny Count: 6

Some air force stock footage on 8mm film flies unrelated maneuvers, intercut with a model shot of a large bird eating toy planes, because the bird is, of course, immune to bullets. The falling toy plane turns into stock footage of a plane crash, and then the bird swoops in to finish off the survivor. Expect it to take another hour or so before they work out that the bird is actively targeting anyone who’s ever seen it, and that this killing spree is all targeted around catching Mitch. The pilot reports that, “It’s like going after a battleship with a slingshot,” Battleship analogy count: 8. which is The first time that this simile has made any sense at all The bird turns more toys into stock footage, and finally kills the pilot we’ve been listening to on the radio. The general laments: “Machine guns, cannons, rockets, nothing touched it!” Why does that sound familiar?

But this movie is no War of the Worlds. General #1 starts to crack up, and General #2 becomes defensive, and Mitch has to reassure them that he’s not talking shit about the air force, and that just because they had a bad time of it, it doesn’t mean their mommies don’t still love them. Fortunately, they get a call from Scientiststm, who think they have something. General #2 explains that he’s given the order to nuke the bird if it turns up anwhere where the fallout won’t be a problem (This is the fifties, when it was common knowledge that as long as you weren’t killed in the blast itself, and you took a really thorough shower afterwards, there was no lasting harm done from exposure to radioactive fallout.). Mitch apologizes for ever having doubted the military superiority of the US Air Force. General Number 2 hugs him and asks him to keep climbing on their backs. Nope. Still not making this up.
Wish I could quit you too.We then cut to a place of SCIENCEtm, where someone’s fifth grade diorama of the Bohr model of the atom is used to explain that atomic weapons are awesome. A scientist explains that while it is widely believed that all atoms are alike, but this is not true: the theory of electrodynamics says that all of nature must be symmetrical, and therefore there must be atoms where the nucleus is negative and the electrons are positive — ANTI-MATTER, and SCIENCEtm has proven that this must be the case, not on earth, but on alien planets elsewhere in the universe. And, quite naturally, anti-mater is invisible to radar. .
Even our heroes aren’t quite so stupid as to think that this makes sense — the Bird should have exploded when it touched the bullets or ate the planes. But, the scientist assures them, the bird itself isn’t made of antimatter, but it radiates an invisible shield made of anti-matter. So that bit about other planets and galaxies made of anti-matter? ENTIRELY POINTLESS. Also, why does this sound familiar?

I’m starting to suspect that this movie is just a cheaper version of War of the Worlds with the word “Martian” crossed out and “Big Bird” pencilled in.

s/martian/big bird/g

The bird can also clearly open its antimatter screen to use its claws and beak as weapons. Because, I guess, the antimatter screen it projects which annihilates any matter with which it comes in contact isn’t good enough as a weapon. The scientist assures them that this is not just a theory, like evolution or the female orgasm, but is scientific fact, evidenced by the pile of debris left over when he tries — as a last resort — to analyze a shed feather from the bird in an ELECTRONIC ANALYZER. Since the feather (“We call it a feather, we don’t really know what it is, just what it looks like.”) contains no known element or compound, analyzing it caused an explosion. Because that’s what happens when you analyze something unknown. But anyway, this proves that the bird is an alien, and also all that bullshit about antimatter, and that the bird comes from a “God-forsaken anti-matter galaxy, billions of miles from earth. Not a theory, folks, scientific fact. Incidentally, during this scene, you can clearly see the shadow of General #1 picking his nose from off-screen. I won’t post a screen shot.
General #2 is going to do everything he can, but, unfortunately, “The last time I talked to a chaplain, there wasn’t any telephone line to the one and only place where we can get the help we need.” Because religious pluralism is for commies. So the general calls the next best person, after God: the secretary of defense. The narrator chips in and recaps that Mitch is the only person to have seen the bird and survived, and that “Among those who knew of it, its existence was a closely guarded secret.” Among those who did not know of it, it was common knowledge. But all that changed when the bird “revealed itself” (eew) to the public at large, and “Complacency turned into panic.” I am fairly sure that their actions so far do not really fit the usual definition of “complacency”, but still.
To demonstrate this, we show some people in swimsuits at a pool in California, who look up in terror to see… a blurry dark blob. They react with horror. Given that for the first half of this movie, they’ve indicated that the bird works to a very precise pattern moving radially outward from a point which appears to be somewhere in Greenland, it strikes me as unlikely that “every corner of the globe” would be unable to look up without catching TEH TERRORZ. It also strikes me that this scene was probably meant to titillate, but the women in 50’s bathing costumes does nothing for me. Well, maybe a little. Also, the bird is so blurry that the whole film seems to have gone astigmatic.
The vaguely blur-shaped bird terrorizes stock footage of London, stock footage of 1920s New York, and stock footage of a World War I battlefield trench. Sally brings over some calculations that she spent all night running through the “calculating machine”, and this pleases Mitch, but she’s disappointed that he does not reward her with a kiss until prompted.
Casual Misogyny Count: 7

Mitch has been working on a crazy and unlikely possibility that might kill the bird, but Sally has had the foresight to follow up with Pierre, and has found out about the giant clawprint we saw half an hour ago. They realize that the “only possible explanation” is that the bird is building a nest. This makes Mitch realize… something, but he keeps insisting that he’ll explain later while he calls the general. The narrator, in the form of a radio announcer, explains that atomic weapons have proven useless against the bird, and all planes have been grounded, leading the bird to resort to ground attacks and an “orgy of destruction” to feed (“Does it eat, as we understand the word?”) — this involves it chasing stock footage of people running away, cattle stampedes, and cars driving off cliffs and exploding. The governments of the world have all declared martial law, declared a Blitz-style blackout and banned all non-essential transportation.
With the entire world cowering, the bird shows up… RIGHT OUTSIDE MITCH’S WINDOW. Mitch and Sally travel by plane and then by three different kinds of stock footage helicopter out to Pierre’s farm, where they take some guns in hope of shooting the bird’s eggs before the can hatch and the human race is really hosed. We’re treated to an interminable “Walking around looking for the nest” scene No one will be seated.. They find it, but mommy is there. Pierre wets them and runs away like the cowardly Frenchman he is (Battleship counter: 8 Misogyny Counter: 7. Offensive Cultural Stereotype Counter: 1) leaving Sally and Mitch to shoot the eggs on their own. Based on the relative size of the bird, these rifles put holes in the eggs approximately the size of a smallish television. This makes momma bird angry, and she uses her antimatter power and giant claws to… drop tree branches on them. And then she chases down Pierre and kills him for being a little bitch. Mitch explains that they’ll need to send out search parties to find any other eggs, and then glibly steals Pierre’s car. Unfortunately, a bunch of roudy Teenagers run them off the road while acting like jackasses because they ain’t afraid of no bird. Also, they repeatedly call Mitch “Daddy-O”. Because disobeying your elders merits death, the bird grabs them. And rather than eating the car, it just drops it again, letting it fall into the anti-matter shield and explode. Two of the teens managed to jump clear before it was too late, and survive, narrowly, though I don’t think they’ll ever be seen again. Sally contemplates their bottle of booze as if it is of keen importance.
The next day, Mitch pitches his new exciting idea, involving SCIENCEtm: One of the newest discoveries in science is the “Mu Masonic Atom With A hydrogen Nucleus”, which I believe is the secret society responsible for the treasure map on the back of the Declaration of Independence. I had a look in Wikipedia to determine how much of this speech was gibberish, and the answer is either “all of it”, or “This topic is so complex that I can’t even work out enough of the vocabulary to google the right thing. Also, I think this may predate the standardization of the terminology. Muonic atoms, which seem to be what he’s talking about, are hydrogen atoms which have a negatively charged Muon where a normal atom would have an electron. Because muons are heavier than electrons, Muonic atoms are smaller than ordinary atoms (In Bohr-world, the heavier muon orbits closer to the nucleus than an electron would. In a quantum world, it has a smaller “ground state waveform”, which means the same thing, only with an added “But electrons don’t really orbit the nucleus like a planet around a sun” at the end). That much is actual science, and I could understand. The next bit, according to Mitch, is “Because the (sic) mesic atom is so small, it can pass through the atom’s electromagnetic defenses and fuse to the nucleus” of either matter or antimatter. Close as I can tell, that doesn’t make any sense. The closest thing I can find is that Muonium (which is the opposite of a muonic atom: a positively charged Muon nucleus with an electron in orbit) can form compounds with normal atoms the same way hydrogen would. But that doesn’t seem useful. Anyway, the upshot of all this is that (a) if you shoot a stream of freemasons at the bird, it will neutralize its crunchy antimatter shell, leaving the bird defenseless except for its razor-sharp talons, beak capable of crushing a jet plane, and feathers which explode under mass spectroscopy. Also, (B), I now know more about subatomic particles than I did when I woke up.
This will allow them to attack the bird by throwing kitchen sinks at it. The general is excited, but settles for a hearty handshake instead of hugging Mitch again. Sally and the Scientist both suggest that this plan is a miracle. You know, I wasn’t especially bothered with George Pal implied at the end of War of the Worlds that the Martians’ vulerability to bacteria was the result of divine intervention. But this is just getting to me.
As they struggle to produce “mesic atoms” in quantity and with lifespans measurable in more than a microsecond, the bird attacks a model train, and carries it off like a string of sausages. Then Mitch accidentally blows himself up.
When Mitch wakes up, they all tell him that they’re giving up and that he did all he could. But Mitch insists that he actually got the thing working — they’d had the polarity reversed. And blew himself up on purpose. The general is ecstatic, and Mitch asks him to go get his pants so they can go.

Pants-Related Delay. Mitch needs a “calculator” for the plane crew. Since this is 1957, a “calculator” is a person who calculates, not a device. But plainly, Sally can’t go with them, as she is only a woman (This one does not count, because the general has no qualms about sending her. I’m going to be generous and suppose that Mitch doesn’t want Sally there because she’s his girlfriend, not because she’s a girl.

They’re forced to launch early, because the bird has been sighted doing this movie’s big VFX shot:


The bird pecks the top off of the paper mache model of the Empire State Buidling, then takes to the air, chasing people across a wide open grassy field in the center of Manhattan. The bird takes a bite out of the UN building, but since it’s above the 9th floor, no one cares. . This causes unrelated stock footage of explosions to play. The Muon-armed plane approaches and the bird gives chase. Stock footage of ground batteries shoot at it, despite the fact that bullets are still useless against it, and we see the same shot of a radar tower as in the first scene. The bird clips the top of a pair of towers that I don’t recognize (The film is too early for it to be the WTC, but I somehow doubt this scene will ever air on TV again), and then — HOLY SHIT:

Isn’t that building supposed to be in San Francisco? Anyway, just as the bird catches up with them, Mitch finishes wiring up the device and fires a few film scratches at the bird. Smoke billows up from somewhere offscreen, as opposed to, like, emanating from the area around the bird, and they take this to mean that the bird is now vulnerable. The generals fire some rockets, the bird falls from the sky, one of the generals shouts, “We got it!” Mitch and Sally kiss, and The movie just ends. No explanation. No closure. No giant vulture soup. No giant vulture sandwiches. Just “The End.”
So that’s The Giant Claw. I won’t swear that it’s the most ridiculous giant movie monster out there, but it is certainly… The most shameless attempt to repurpose an early draft of the script to War of the Worlds. Shame on you, Fred Sears. I leave you with this parting shot, a last look at the slowly sinking beast…

MythTV: Volume Leveling

Back at the other end of this year, I decided to retire my aging TiVo, and become a full-time user of the magic that is MythTV. For those of you who don’t know, MythTV is a software package you can run on a computer (Linux based. I won’t swear that there isn’t a Windows port, but of this, I know little) which does more or less what a Digital Video Recorder does — it can record TV to its hard drive so you can watch it whenever you like. But because you’ve got a whole computer which is under your control, it can also do, well, anything else you want. For my purposes, the most useful thing that it does is to act as a sort of video jukebox: I can back up all my DVDs to a network hard drive, and thereby avoid all the hassle of (a) having to keep piles of DVDs in the living room, (b) risking scratches, and (c) dealing with temperamental DVD players. Another of its nice features is that, with an add-on called MythNetTV, you can subscribe to video podcasts via MythTV, and it will deliver new episodes to you just as if they’d been broadcast over the air, allowing you to watch grainy, low-resolution YouTube quality video of cats doing amusing things on your 40 inch HDTV. I’ve long found it ironic that as TVs get bigger and resolutions increase, we’re increasingly willing to huddle around a laptop monitor to watch a 320×200 viral video. Well, suck it, losers, because I’m watching The Spoony Experiment and The Nostalgia Critic on the big screen.
Now, like most Linux projects, it’s not all sunshine. I’ve got two cheap TV tuner dongles, which don’t work with it (There’s several very nice tuners which work with it, but I really wanted just a cheap one to use as a secondary tuner). And the usability is not nearly as polished as, say, TiVo (That said, it’s miles beyond most cable box DVRs in the UI department). There’s a few annoyances that I have yet to be able to overcome (The size at which subtitles render is hard-coded, which means that it displays at a size which was plainly selected for a Standard Definition screen, making it slightly microsocopic at 1080p), but, like I said, it’s a whole computer, and you can bring to bear all that implies.
I’d been meaning for some time to write a series of articles about the cool things I’ve written to bend the Mythtv to my will, but actually banging any of my hacks into a presentable state has required a bit more time than I’ve been willing to invest. But this week, I found something so handy and so elegant that I thought it was time to share it.
So, MythTV trick Number One:
One problem with playing back video from various disparate sources is the volume level. You know how when you’re watching regular old-fashioned TV, more often than not, the commercials will be about a million decibels louder than the show? The volume will be different from one channel to the next. When you’re also downloading New Media from The Intertubes, those too will be at radically different levels from TV, and from each other. DVDs are usually at a much lower level than TV (I think this may be caused by the downmix from 5.1 to stereo). And if, say, you’re watching a third generation rip from a grainy VHS of a film so rare that no one involved in it will even admit to having heard of it, you’re talking borderline inaudible.
With months of training, I’ve got Leah to the point where she’ll actually give me a fair chance to reach the remote control and turn the volume down before she yells at me to turn it down the instant the sound starts, but it’s still not really an optimal solution for me to keep having to adjust the volume from one video to the next.
If you are a modern person who keeps all your music in digital format, you may be familiar with the concept of volume normalizing, which analyses a whole song and works out how to adjust the overall volume to the song so that you don’t blow out your ear drums if Shuffle Play puts a John Tesh song right after one by Alice in Chains (Which is not to say that you don’t deserve deafness for your taste in music).
But the tools for doing this to video are less mature, and besides, you might be willing to spend 2 minutes preprocessing a 4 minute song you’re going to keep for the rest of your life, but I’m not willing to spend 30 minutes processing an episode of Stargate Universe which I’m going to delete as soon as I’ve finished watching it.
As it turns out, though, since you’re running a whole computer, and it’s Linux, the Magical World Where You Can Basically Do Anything You Want So Long As You’re Willing To Carve It From the Solid Granite of the OS With Your Bare Hands, it’s possible to just order your sound card to do that normalization for you as it plays — in this case, it’s called Compression and Limiting.
I could just about muddle through the science of how it works, but probably not well enough to explain it to anyone in detail. The general gist of it is that a “compressor” squishes audio such that it reduces the difference between the loudest sounds and the softest. When a sound is louder than some threshhold, it reduces the volume, but it does it in a very smooth way that sounds good. This is something radio stations do so that you can turn the volume up loud enough to hear the soft bits without blowing out your speakers for the loud bits. A “limiter” is the same basic process, but it’s much more powerful and lacks the subtlety of a lower-rate compressor. Basically, the purpose of the compressor is to make the audio all “fit” within a certain range of loud-to-soft, and then the limiter boosts the gain (ie. “Turns the volume up”) while keeping it from exceeding a certain threshold.
In Linux’s ALSA sound system, you can create plugins which (long story short) basically act like virtual sound devices. You tell an application to use that sound device, and any audio the application tries to put out will be sent through the plugin before it’s turned into sweet delicious audio. Here’s an audio compressor that I threw together based on some stuff I found on the ALSA wiki:

pcm.ladcomp {
type plug
slave.pcm "ladcomp_compressor";
pcm.ladcomp_compressor {
type ladspa
slave.pcm "ladcomp_limiter";
path "/usr/lib/ladspa";
plugins [
label dysonCompress
input {
controls [0 1 0.5 0.99]
pcm.ladcomp_limiter {
type ladspa
slave.pcm "default";
path "/usr/lib/ladspa";
plugins [
label fastLookaheadLimiter
input {
controls [ 15 0 0.8  ]

This code can be put in your /etc/asound.conf, then just tell MythTV to use the sound device ALSA:ladcomp (It’s under Utilities / Setup -> Setup -> General if you’re using the default menus. I’ve hacked mine up a bit, so it took me longer to find it). It should have defaulted to something like ALSA:default. Restart MythFrontend, and voila: all your audio should play at around and about the same level. To use this, you’ll need the ladspa plugins. If your MythTV is running on Ubuntu Linux (I use Mythbuntu, a version of Ubuntu oriented toward MythTV (For the non-Linux experienced, you can basically run any Linux software on any Linux box. The major difference between various Linux distributions is basically which software it installs by default, as opposed to which ones you have to download and install on your own. Ubuntu is a distribution which takes the radical step of assuming that its users may include actual human beings and might want to spend more time actually using their computer than assembling it.)), you can get them by running “sudo apt-get install ladspa-sdk swh-plugins”.
If you want this trick to apply to other applications, you can tell them to use ladcomp as their audio device too. For instance, with mplayer, try mplayer -ao alsa:device=ladcomp.
If you want to do some fine tuning, you can try changing that 15 to other numbers to change the range for the final audio (You have to restart MythFrontend before the changes will be honored). I haven’t found quite the right setting for me personally yet — 15 is a bit higher than I want, I think, since it makes the “comfortable” position on my stereo’s volume dial around 6 out of 30 — I think somewhere in the 10-15 range would be better. But, at least for me, it does put MythTV in about the same volume zone as the Nintendo Wii, so I’m not racing to turn the volume down when we turn the game consoles on.
So, with any luck, and a little bit of work, you too can bend the sound system to your will, and watch whatever you like without fear of getting yelled at by your fiancee for having the TV turned up too high.