Sunday, December 30, 2007

The Line of the Tiger

Commercially, the movie adaptation of the graphic novel PERSEPOLIS has a lot against it. It's a 2-D animated film. In black and white. In French (with subtitles). It deals with emotional complexities. It portrays in a favorable light characters who espouse Communism. (Indeed, in one hallucinatory sequence, God and Karl Marx share space in Heaven.) And the viewpoint character is an Iranian woman.

Screw commercial success. PERSEPOLIS is one terrific film. Co-directed by the writer/artist of the original graphic novel, Marjane Satrapi, PERSEPOLIS tells Satrapi's story of growing from childhood to young womanhood, first in Iran during the Islamic revolution and the Iran-Iraq war, then in Vienna in the mid-eighties, back in Iran, and then finally moving back to Europe. Satrapi portrays herself as a smart-mouthed and fallible intellectual who feels out of place everywhere, whether buying bootleg Iron Maiden tapes on the streets of Tehran or shouting at her European friends for espousing Nihilism while people in Iran are imprisoned, tortured and executed for their beliefs. It can drag the viewer into the depths of Satrapi's depression, and then suddenly convulse the viewer with hilarity (including a montage in which a twenty-something Satrapi works to pull her life together, while singing -- off-key -- "Eye of the Tiger," shadow-punching the camera to the beat.)

The animation is absolutely gorgeous. The line is what does it. Gracefully curving, it evokes both Al Hirschfield and Aubrey Beardsley in its expressiveness, and in the balancing of white and black. Cartoonists often say that drawing with a simple line is harder to pull off than filling a drawing with details, because the honesty of simplicity leaves no room to fake it. The animators have pulled it off. Also notable are the scenes told in silhouette, which are reminiscent of UPA and Disney animation of the '50's.

If there's any justice, PERSEPOLIS should do well at the Oscars. The commercial dice will fall where they will.

Saturday, December 29, 2007

Mission: Highly Improbable

One of my holiday gifts was the first season of MISSION:IMPOSSIBLE on DVD. M:I is virtually unique among the bushel of spy series that hit TV in the mid-sixties, in that it continued into the 1970's, and I was thus able to watch some of the episodes first run (despite being about one year old when the series debuted).

In the first season, Peter Graves had not yet joined the series; Steven Hill plays the IMF team leader. The episodes, at least initially, did not begin in the style that later became the series signature: the hiss of the message self-destructing fading into the flute of the opening theme. Instead, the episodes have no teaser; they begin with the fuse being lit in the opening credits. Further, in the pilot, the assignment is delivered on a swing LP; in the next episode, "Memory," it's delivered on a printed card. (Nowadays, I imagine the IMF gets its orders via MP3's. Or do they destroy an Ipod for every mission?)

Watching the pilot and "Memory," I learned some important tips about espionage:

  • If your cinematography, lighting and music are great, you can get away with cheap production values and stock footage.
  • Both South American jungles and the woods of the Balkans look a lot like Pasadena or the Arboretum.
  • The IMF's job is easier when their foes are complete idiots. In the pilot, a Castro-like dictator stores two nukes in a hotel vault. (Why? Who knows?) The hotel -- which knows what is stored there -- nevertheless allows Willie the strongman to stash in the same vault two sample cases large enough to hold a person each without searching them. D'oh!
  • It's easier for Martin Landau's character to impersonate a target when the target is also played by Martin Landau. And:
  • Twenty-five minutes into the pilot, Barbara Bain strips off her cocktail dress -- in front of two bound and gagged guards -- and appears wrapped in a tiny towel. I think at that point, the series was sold.

Friday, December 28, 2007

Happy Stan Lee Day!

Nearly thirty-five years ago, my parents gave me a copy of the book ORIGINS OF MARVEL COMICS by Stan Lee, a collection of sixties Marvel stories with reminisces (reportedly often apocryphal) by the then-publisher of Marvel. Little did my parents anticipate that as a result I'd still be collecting comics in the 21st century.

Today, the most successful writer/editor/promoter combo in the history of the business turns 85 years old. In between hosting his own reality show, acting, and continuing to write, maybe he'll take a rest. 'Nuff said.

Monday, December 24, 2007

How the Pirates Stole Christmas

Apparently, several young people are unable to appreciate the irony of celebrating the holidays by pirating Christmas songs.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

The Perfect Comic Book Cover?

Conceptually, a comic book cover -- like any magazine or book cover -- is an advertising poster, the goal of which is to persuade the viewer to buy the publication without seeing the contents.

By that standard, the 1968 cover to Batman issue 199 -- beautifully drawn by Carmine Infantino and Murphy Anderson, published during the Bat-mania of the mid-sixties, and plugging no less than seven other DC comic books -- may be the perfect comic book cover.

What the @#$%&* did he just say?!

Bookworm —

My cousin Tod, the literary writer, occasionally mocks KRCW pundit Michael Silverblatt's silverblatherings about books. I thought he was exaggerating -- mostly because Silverblatt is on Thursday afternoons, and I'm generally too busy working then to listen to KCRW. But then I tuned in this past week while stuck in traffic driving through Beverly Hills (see posting below); and heard him talking about a book in which a black woman in prison channels Mark Twain. I was treated to a long, rambling sentence from the learned commentator, full of clauses that twisted and turned like Lombard Street, never quite connecting to each other; and ending with his description of the book as "the whole -- and varied -- enchilada." Don't take my word for it. Listen for yourself.

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Silver Mel

Mark Evanier's holiday story is a lot more magical than mine (see below). I first read this in his POV column back in 1999, and I've thought of it fondly ever since. It involves Mel Torme and his most enduring contribution to the American Songbook, "The Christmas Song" -- so enduring that many who know the song by heart have never heard of Torme. Read the story.

Christmas in the Pit with Brian

Here's a holiday season story. It doesn't involve orphans finding a family, or a hazardous journey across a wintery landscape toward home, or even a savings-and-loan owner who manages with community help to cheat his way through his uncle's fiscal malfeasance. Instead, it involves the unlikely marriage of big-band swing and rockabilly music.

Last night, we went to the Gibson Amphitheater to watch the Brian Setzer Orchestra's Christmas extravaganza. The Gibson, formerly the Universal Amphitheater, is where I saw my first rock concert (with my older brother) back in 1980, when the Amphitheater was still an open-air venue. Setzer is the gent who, in the syth-drenched days of the early '80's, convinced the world that what they really needed to hear was the rockabilly music of the '50's; and consequently obtained a couple of top-40 hits with his band, the Stray Cats. In the early '90's he hit on the idea of marrying his rockabilly guitar licks with big-band swing; and founded the BSO -- complete with a stand-up bass, a rock drummer, saxes, trumpets, trombones, and female backup singers.

We sat through a fun opening act of a rockabilly band from England, which included a sit-down pedal steel guitar. (How does an Englishman get inspired to learn to play one of those?) Then, in the intermission, a gentleman slurring his words approached our seats, near the back of the amphitheater, and asked us if we'd like to be in the orchestra pit for the main act. Somewhat leery, we nevertheless said yes. He handed us two plastic wristbands and two backstage passes. "To what do we owe this blessing?" I asked, still suspicious. "It's Christmas," he replied, "and I had a couple extra." (I suspect that they had sold fewer pit passes than they expected; and gave audience members upgrades so that the pit would be full. Then again, they may just have been impressed because I wore a jacket and tie.)

We cautiously headed to the pit; and the guard waved us in. The wristbands were genuine.

We then enjoyed a fantastic concert, close enough to the stage to see every hair in the formerly-blond pompadour that Setzer had allowed to turn a distinguished silver. I'm delighted to see a band that not only masters their musical chops but also puts on a good show. Particularly wonderful were Setzer's drummer and bass player (both named John; I forget their last names). John the bass player showed off all sorts of tricks -- playing the bass (almost as big as he was) upside down, sideways, and backwards; playing it while Setzer lounged on the upper part of it; and even standing on one corner of it, balancing there while he continued to play!

Along with raucous versions of his Stray Cats hits "Rock this Town" (spectacular with a full brass section) and "Stray Cat Strut" (which morphed without breaking stride into "You're a Mean One, Mr. Grinch"), he played the BSO versions of "In the Mood" and "Jump, Jive, and Wail"; several Christmas songs, and his reworkings of "In the Hall of the Mountain King," "Flight of the Bumblebee," and "Fur Elise" from his new album, "Wolfgang's Night Out." At the mid-point, he brought the curtain down on the big band and played several songs with just the bassist and the drummer; then, in the middle of "Route 66," he brought the big band back in seamlessly.

Afterward, our backstage passes indeed allowed us backstage, into an open-air reception courtyard (complete with hosted bar and a pile of chips on a table), where we got to chat with various band members, including the bassist and the opening act.

And to all a good night.


Update: There's a nice write-up of the Friday night concert in the LA Times. And on Sunday, we were channel-flipping when we came upon a video of the BSO's 2005 LA Christmas show on one of the high-definition channels.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

The Trouble with Treos

Palm Down, Centro Way Up, Treo On The Mend | Treonauts

I've inadvertently become part of a market trend.

Back in 1999, I won a Palm V pda as a door prize at a legal tech show.  The metal and glass pda had little power, a black and white screen, and no expandable memory.  But it was incredibly efficient and easy to use.  A single charge to its battery would last it weeks.  I found the alarms I could set as reminders for events to be indispensable.  I became a Palm fan.

Simultaneously, I've been a Verizon cell customer ever since the mid-90's.  So long as Verizon continues to rate highest in customer satisfaction, I wasn't about to give that up.

As time went on, I replaced the Palm V with a Palm Tungsten E, with its color screen, SD memory card slot, and video-playing capability.  But what I really wanted was a smartphone -- a combination pda and cellphone.  When Verizon finally adopted the PalmTreo 600, I snapped it up.  It was nifty, and I enjoyed accessing the Internet and work e-mail on my pda.  But it had a terrible battery capacity -- particularly when compared to my old Palm V.  A single charge would barely last it a day (less, with heavy use).  Eventually, last year, the 600 got fried in a Radio Shack related accident; and my phone insurance bought me a 650.  The 650 had far better battery life, a clearer screen, and a nicer camera.

Still, I began to desire the Treo 755p -- the new generation Treo Palm introduced at the beginning of this year.  It was smaller, lighter, and more streamlined.  It had a brighter screen, broadband Internet capabilities, and  the ability to play streaming video from the Internet. 

The problem was that the 755 was only available from Sprint.  Rumors pegged Verizon (which, like Sprint, has a CDMA network) as getting the 755p in mid-summer.  Then September.  Then November.

I grew disappointed with the constant rumors of the Verizon 755p.  Apparently, I wasn't the only one.  The problem, purportedly, was that Palm kept submitting 755p models made for Verizon to the carrier; and Verizon, which has high standards in phones, kept rejecting them.

The alleged result:  While Palm had a $12.77 million profit in the first quarter, it took a loss of $9.6 million in the second quarter.  This was despite an 11 percent increase in its smartphone sales.  According to the Treonauts blog, the increase was due to sales of the latest Palm smartphone to hit Sprint:  the tiny Centro, which sells under a Palm imprint rather than a Treo one.  The loss, according to the blog, "was blamed on the late arrival of the Verizon Treo 755p which began shipping after the end of Palm’s quarter as well as warranty costs of older legacy products."  Palm's stock sunk, and it layed off a bunch of folks.

But Monday, Palm finally unveiled the Verizon Treo 755p.  I immediately ordered one (I was eligible for an upgrade discount from Verizon), and it arrived today.  Whether this device can lift Palm from its sales funk remains to be seen.  What also remains to be seen is Palm's fate if the Apple iPhone becomes available from carriers other than AT& T -- like Verizon.Tr

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Thursday, December 20, 2007

Swimmin' Pools, Movie Stars, Traffic Hell

This afternoon, I experienced the joy and delight of driving through downtown Beverly Hills five days before Christmas. Wonder of wonders, one of the top shopping neighborhoods in the world was jammed to bursting with people buying stuff. Moreover, the streets were crawling with cars containing people who had or were about to buy stuff. Further, due to those charming one-way streets, I had to go south from Little Santa Monica Boulevard down Rodeo Drive to get to my destination on Camden. Yes, Rodeo -- which, even as a small child in the Northwest, I knew (a) was pronounce Roh-day-oh, and (b) was a high-end shopping mecca. Filled me right up to the eyeballs with holiday spirit, I can tell you.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

The Hobbit is Happening

Looks like the poor box office receipts for The Golden Compass have a golden -- er, silver -- lining. New Line, the company that hoped to have another Lord of the Rings type success with the Phillip Pullman series, has apparently decided to go back to the real thing. It has kissed and made up with Peter Jackson, who will co-executive produce THE HOBBIT and a sequel. I'm sure the hobbits will have several feasts in celebration.

Brainless Business

Fortune Magazine has posted a list of the 101 dumbest moments in business for 2007.

Among my favorites:

  • An employee in a German screw factory stole thousands of screws every night, eventually swiping around a million units. He sold the screws on the Internet at cut-rate prices; and single-handedly depressed the screw market.
  • Google's Blogger (the hosts of this blog here) labeled a company blog as spam -- and disabled it.
  • Passengers forked over $15,000 each for tickets on the maiden flight of Singapore Airline's Airbus 380. They got a private double-bed suite on the plane, with endless champagne. But the airline asked the jet-setting passengers to refrain from having sex on the plane. (For $15,000, the airline should provide the sex . . . .)
  • Whenever we're in Japan, we marvel at the high-tech toilets, with built-in push-button bidets, cleaning jets, and seat warmers. But Toto Corporation of Japan had to issue apologies and offer free repairs when three of its super-commodes caught fire.
  • Taco Bell opened a store in Mexico City. It assured potential customers that it "does not pretend to be Mexican food."
  • An airline rewarded a gold-level frequent flyer riding in first class by taking the body of a woman who died in economy and plopping her mortal remains down in the seat next to him -- while he slept. When he requested compensation from the airline, they told him he should "get over it." And:
  • Intel promoted its Core 2 Duo Processor with an ad depicting a white businessman and, well . . . just look at the ad.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Why Doesn't the Internet Like My Cousin?

I consider myself a nominally reasonable, fundamentally civilized urban professional. So why do I find so fascinating the raw hatred with with several folks on the Internet view my cousin Lee Goldberg. Lee's brother Tod finds it fascinating too. Tod has aggregated several particularly venomous diatribes about Lee and posted them proudly on his blog. Not to be outdone, Lee has posted a link to Tod's post on Lee's blog.

Considering the anger directed toward Lee by many in the science fiction fandom community, I expected his latest Monk book, "Mr. Monk in Outer Space," -- in which the OCD-afflicted sleuth must solve the murder of the creator of a cult SF show, committed just outside of a convention -- to be a vicious character attack upon the SF community. Yet I found the book to be even-handed and, yes, even compassionate and understanding toward fandom. I expected to see blood on the floor. I found only Bactine and band-aids. (Yes, lousy metaphor. There's a reason my relatives are the novelists.) Still, fun book. And still time to buy lots of them for friends for the holidays. Only eight shopping days and all that . . . .

The Electronic Lawyer

I was sitting in LA Superior Court one morning, waiting for my motion to be called, when I overheard one septugenarian lawyer tell his partner, "I don't do e-mail. When we get back, can you show me how to make an e-mail?"

Replied his partner, "What's to know? You just send an e-mail!"

Conversations like that make me concerned that knowledge of the Internet is becoming mandatory for attorneys. Starting next year, the United States District Court for the Central District of California -- like all of the other federal district courts in the state -- will require mandatory e-filing for all cases. (It already requires e-filing for intellectual property and criminal cases.) Some state courts -- particularly complex-case courts -- require e-filing. Further, the Central District is forcing all attorneys admitted to practice before it to either undergo e-filing training or supply proof of training from another California District court; or face sanctions.

Also, if the California Supreme Court approves a State Bar proposal, every attorney licensed to practice in California will not only have to register with the bar online every year, but will also have to furnish an e-mail address. So yes, that elderly lawyer will have to learn to make an e-mail.

I have mixed thoughts about e-filing. It eliminates filings that are late because the messenger could not make it across town before the filing window closed; and it allows filing documents from across the state (or country, or world). It also saves ink, paper, and (when other parties can be served electronically) postage. On the other hand, if your (or the court's) Internet connection goes down at a crucial time, you can be in trouble. Further, most district courts that require e-filing also require filers to send a paper courtesy copy of the document directly to the judge -- which kind of erases some of the benefits of e-filing. The ideal solution would be optional e-filing; but the courts appear to consider that too cumbersome.

He Had a Secret

Mark Evanier's blog features today a fascinating clip from "I've Got a Secret," broadcast a little over fifty years ago. The contestant is Philo T. Farnsworth, who -- as viewers of Johnny Carson and readers of the book CARTER BEATS THE DEVIL know -- invented modern television. His discussion with the host after his identity is revealed indicates that even back in the fifties he was working on what would be come high-definition TV -- as well as an attempt to use nuclear fusion as a peacetime energy source (which alas has not yet been acheived -- as far as we know).

Just Another Dreary December Day in Southern California

Some photos I took yesterday during a bike ride on Venice Beach. Note the sand berm built at the end of Venice Boulevard.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Manga for Finding a Murderer

Nearly a year ago, a young man who moved to Kyoto to attend a manga-creating course at a university there was stabbed to death while bicycling to his apartment. Now, in an effort to elicit information about the killer from the public, his classmates have produced a manga story about the victim. Half of the story depicts the deceased student's life. The other half (drawn with an eerie half-tone fog background) depicts what is known about his death.

Can a comic catch a killer? We'll see.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Bad Heinlein! Bad! Bad!

Robert Heinlein's future may be past - Los Angeles Times

On Sunday, the LA Times' Calendar section published this article about Robert Heinlein's legacy, as the SF giant's 100th birthday nears.  The reporter makes some attempt at a balanced article, but the overall tone of the piece is negative and somewhat bitchy.  Lots of modern commentators (who appear mainly to be critics and bookbuyers, rather than writers themselves) treat Heinlein as a literary dinosaur, lumbering and crushing his way through mid-20th-century science fiction.

Certainly Heinlein's work furnishes support for such polarized opinions.  On the one hand, he was a gifted, enthralling storyteller, who believed in the promise of science and technology to help humans evolve into their best selves.  On the other, his work (especially his later novels) abounded with polemics, chest-thumping, omnicompetent know-it-alls and crusty crankcases.  (I must agree with those who like his "juveniles" best; books like "Have Space Suit -- Will Travel" and "Podkayne of Mars" maximized his entertaining writing while minimizing the polemics.

Still, I doubt that the detractors in the article will have as much influence and adulation 100 years after their births as Heinlein has now.

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He's up and Flyin' as He Guns the Car around the Track

Speed Racer - Film Database

The trailer for the Wachowski Brothers' live action (sorta) SPEED RACER movie is up on the Web. If the trailer is any indication, this is not just an adaptation or an approximation of SPEED RACER; they've actually made a SPEED RACER cartoon, albeit with live-action actors. It's fun in a short burst; the only question is whether it will be too cloying or annoying in a two-hour chunk. I can predict, though, that audiences will love it and critics will be predicting the end of Western civilization as we know it.

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Sunday, December 02, 2007

Death of an American Action Figure

Evel Knievel, iconic American daredevil, dies at 69 - Los Angeles Times

The celebrities we remember best are the ones that somehow embody not the American dream, but an American archetype.

The Northwest's Robert Knievel -- nicknamed in his youth "Evel," likely because of his criminal past -- was not just famous for his increasingly ambitious stunts. Instead, he was exactly what America needed in the turbulent, ambiguity-filled days of the late '60's and early '70's in which I grew up. He was so many things America loves. He was a showman. He was a braggart. He was physically smashed repeatedly, only to rebound and come back for more. He was a bit of a rogue, and a bit of a thug. Indeed, he may have inflated his accounts of his criminal past: He told the media that when he sold motorcycles in Moses Lake, Washington in the mid-sixties he embarked on a crime spree of safe-cracking, armed robberies and beatings.

His popularity, perhaps not coincidently, coincided with our cinematic celebrations of brilliant but rough-edged fanatics ("Patton") and slick, daring criminals ("The Sting," "Paper Moon," "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid," "Bonny and Clyde.")

Europe may have invented and perfected the circus, but America perfected the carny. Knievel was carny through-and-through -- a side-show attraction who could make us momentarily forget about Watergate by such Wile E. Coyote antics as shooting across a canyon on a rocket-powered "motorcycle" (and, like Wile E., landing on the canyon floor with a quiet "poof.")

To me, and to many other boys who spent their single and early double digit years in the sixties and seventies, Knievel was an action figure. Literally. Likely no kid who was around during the seventies can forget the commercial for the Knievel action figure. The figure came with (appropriately) a "swagger stick," and one of the most marvelous accessories in the history of seventies' toys: a scale-model stunt motorcycle, complete with shock absorbers. The kid would place the bike in a red device with a crank. Through the magic of gears and friction, turning the crank would produce a whine that parodied a high-performance engine revving. At maximum torque, the bike would shoot out of the starter, across a ramp, and then crash into the ground. The Knievel figure was made of rubber, so that it could bounce back like Knievel. The bike would eventually be smashed to bits -- again, much like the real Knievel.

As may be typical of Americans, Knievel wrote physical IOUs in his early years that his body began to call as he aged. Much like the American economy, the body can seem to bounce back from catastrophic traumas; but each one weakens the infrastructure in ways that can never fully be eradicated. Hence, Knievel ended up in a walker when other men his age were still out jogging.

In short, he never needed to wear those stars and stripes on his Nomex coveralls. He was unmistakeably American.

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Gift Card Pointers

Keeping tabs on gift cards - Los Angeles Times

Yesterday's LA Times featured this article on a new Website,, at which gift card recipients can register their gift cards and track their value.  The article includes an important tip:  Under the law of California and other states, gift cards issued by retailers cannot expire and cannot decrease in value.  But gift cards issued by banks (such as the Visa Gift Card) and malls are not subject to those regulations.  So if you plan to give someone a bank gift card, a check is probably a better gift.

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And the Geat Goes On

Last night, we saw BEOWULF in Imax 3-D, which is a combination moviegoing experience and thrill-ride. BEOWULF is the unlikely collaboration between BACK TO THE FUTURE and WHO FRAMED ROGER RABBIT director Robert Zemeckis, SANDMAN and STARDUST scribe Neil Gaiman, PULP FICTION co-writer Roger Avery, and some anonymous bard or bards who, around the seventh to tenth century AD, wrote down a poem (probably heard from others) about this Weather-Geat prince who beats up a few monsters.

As might be expected from Gaiman, who has made a cottage industry out of probing, prodding and post-moderning the enduring myths and stories of the western world, BEOWULF follows the broad contours of the poem; but is less interested in telling a straight account of events than in a "print the legend" exploration of what the "true" events behind the poem's account might be. The creators don't take the magic or the essence out: Beowulf's just as mighty and foolhardy as he is in the poem (albeit quite a bit less noble); supernatural monsters and demons are just as real as in that tale; and Beowulf's fights with Grendel and the dragon are as slam-bang satisfying as one could hope. Indeed, the dragon may be the best such fire-breather ever realized on film.

But the filmmakers introduce complexity into the story, by making Beowulf, Hrothgar, and the other folks in the saga three-dimensional (I'm not just referring to the headache-inducing glasses the audience was wearing); by making Grendel sympathetic, and giving him and his mom motives for their acts; by exploring some of the mysteries of the poem (if Beowulf kills Grendel's mom in her watery lair, why does he haul back Grendel's head?); and by recognizing that one can obtain revenge on a man in far subtler ways than beating the crap out of him.

The motion-capture animation generally looks great, although the hair-thin line between animation and reality is sometimes jarring. And the 3-D effects pose an inherent visual storytelling problem. A primary goal of framing a shot is to focus the audience's attention on whatever the object is on screen that is most crucial to telling the story. But 3-D focuses the audience's attention on whatever is flying at them, be it a rat snatched by a hawk, an arrow, or half of a bisected warrior. For instance, in one scene Beowulf and his men drag their ship up onto a rocky beach. Our attention is not on the men; not on the ship; but on the millions of water-polished stones in the foreground (i.e., floating over the front row's heads). Now, the stones are visually impressive, and the thought of generating them in a computer is daunting. But what part to they play in telling the story of Beowulf?