California State Capitol tour

February 16, 2020
California State Capitol

 

Visiting the state capitol for the tour, I was immediately surprised by two things: one, the front of the building is largely covered up by scaffolding for a restoration project, and two, you can’t even enter through the original building at all.

The entrance is not only in the back “annex” of the building where all the offices are located, but in separate wings added in the early 2000’s to allow for more rigid security screenings. It’s not exactly like the TSA though I had to take off my watch and belt to make it through the metal detector.

I arrived slightly late for the official tour that hour, but since it’s a pretty causal and free tour I was allowed to join anyway. Several tours are offered during open hours nearly every day of the year; call ahead or ask at the information desk in the rotunda on the first floor for details.

As it turns out the government offices are all in the annex building, which dates back from the 1940’s and is unfortunately pretty drab. It feels like an upscale public school building at best. The plan is to tear down and replace this part of the building soon.

 

California State Capitol California State Capitol

 

The original building is largely a museum at this point, aside from the State Senate and State Assembly chambers. During my visit on the weekend both chambers were filled with students trying their hands at politics. I have to say a handful of the students sounded very professional.

According to the guide both rooms borrowed their color schemes from their UK counterparts — the red color scheme in the Senate is from the House of Lords, and the green color scheme in the Assembly is from the House of Commons.

 

California State Capitol

 

Speaking of connections to the old world, in the middle of the rotunda is a marble statue of Columbus begging Queen Isabella for funding.

The connection between Columbus’ voyage and California is thin at best, but the statue took on a good luck charm status when legislators would go up to the second floor and try to toss coins into the queen’s crown as a superstition for luck in getting bills passed. Today this practice has been forbidden thanks to damage to the statue, though they’re allowed to toss cotton balls instead.

 

California State Capitol

 

Due to Jerry Brown’s unprecedented split terms as governor, his original portrait was recently removed and is no longer displayed with the other portraits — a new one is in the works. The previous portrait is in a side hall that’s off limits when certain government functions are in session.

This original portrait by California artist Don Bachardy was considered controversial at the time as it broke with the conventions of how politicians were meant to be portrayed in art. At the same time it’s unmistakably Jerry Brown, and in the years since political portraits have become less homogeneous. For example the portrait of Arnold Schwarzenegger almost looks like a movie poster.

 

California State Capitol

 

Unlike the tour I took last year of the superficially similar looking Colorado State Capitol building, there’s no viewing deck or even access up to the top of the rotunda.

According to the guide there is a walkway up some very narrow stairs for maintenance purposes, though the very top of the stairs were sealed off when the building was extensively retrofitted/rebuilt in the 1970’s.

 

California State Capitol

 

There’s plenty of other details big and small about the capitol building reveled on the tour — far too many to go into here — so I’ll end on a silly one.

Before he left office, Arnold Schwarzenegger purchased a life-sized bronze bear statue and placed it outside the governor’s office.

On one hand it’s a strange choice and I’m not sure Schwarzenegger is someone I’d consult for decorating advice in general, but on the other it fits the state’s bear motif which is referenced throughout the capitol building. I guess the fact that he left office nearly a decade ago and the bear statue is still there kind of speaks for itself.

My recommendation: It’s a free tour of a building with a lot of history so why not? You may even learn a little about how the state government works along the way.

Old Sacramento Waterfront and the underground

Old Town Sacramento Old Town Sacramento Old Town Sacramento

 

The waterfront is where Sacramento began, although today it barely feels like a part of the city. It’s all but cut off from downtown Sacramento by an enormous freeway, and most of what you’ll find there are your pretty typical tourist trap stores — tacky jewelry, shirts with “funny” slogans you can buy anywhere, funnel cake vendors, etc.

If you know where to look though there is a lot of interesting history to see. Your best bet to learn more about the history of the area is either the California State Railroad Museum (which I didn’t visit on this trip) or the Sacramento History Museum.

I booked a spot on the Sacramento History Museum’s Underground Tour, which also includes free admission to the museum. Unfortunately for me most of the museum was closed for a refresh of the exhibits. And unfortunately for you, photography isn’t allowed in the underground portions of the tour so you’ll just have to either read my descriptions, or go on the tour yourself.

The Underground Tour was led by a guide who was very much in character as a deputy during the gold rush. As he explained Sacramento began as a series of tents next to the river, which regularly flooded. Later on wood buildings were erected, built tall enough that boats could float between them on the second floors when the area flooded.

Wood structures burn down of course, and nothing from that era stands today. It was all replaced by brick structures after a particularly destructive fire. Yet that didn’t work out well in the long run as the mining activities in the area just caused the floods to get more and more intense.

Eventually the residents decided to do three things: divert the American River around the city, give the railroads land along the Sacramento river in exchange for constructing levies, and manually jack up over 100 brick buildings by about 25 feet to match the new street level set by the levies. Oh, and they jacked the buildings up while people were still working in them, which meant getting in and out required climbing a series of ladders.

The tour goes under two buildings in what are now the basement levels. The second one has excavation sites where various materials have been found, including an early toothbrush, a set of weighted dice to cheat at gambling, and what’s believed to be an early painting of Abraham Lincoln.

Alleys in the area were never raised the entire height, but instead slope downward by about 12 feet. A brick patio in one of the above photos was also not brought up to the full height.

By far the most random and disgusting thing I learned on the tour was when the guide pulled out two corncobs — sans corn kernels — and asked “does anyone know what these are for?” As it turns out, they were used for wiping yourself after going to the bathroom. The worst part is you could wash them off in the river and reuse them — the same river where people were getting their drinking water.

My recommendation: Although most of old Sacramento is pretty sad these days, there’s a lot of history to uncover if you do your research and plan ahead. Do not go unprepared.

California Governor’s Mansion

Governor's Mansion Governor's Mansion Governor's Mansion

 

For the weekend I decided to take the train up to Sacramento, staying in a bed and breakfast located in a creaky old 19th century Victorian home. As it turns out the Mansion Flats neighborhood is filled with buildings of similar age and architecture, including the California Governor’s Mansion.

Although the mansion was converted into a museum in the mid 1960’s it was recently closed and renovated to bring it up to modern building codes. Jerry Brown moved in it during his final term as governor.

It’s unclear what the future of the building will be; current governor Gavin Newsom decided not to move in. It’s currently closed to the public.

In the end I’m not sure exactly what the point of having an official governor’s mansion is if governors generally don’t want to live in it. It’s not even particularly close to the governor’s office.

 

Governor's Mansion at night

 

Walking by the mansion after dark I was surprised to find it was lit from below, giving it the look of a haunted house someone painted white in an attempt to drive the ghosts out.

With no living residents in the mansion, for now it seems the ghosts have won out.

Six most outrageous moments during the 2020 On Cinema Oscar Special

February 14, 2020

This year’s On Cinema Oscar Special was a little bit of a surprise. Online speculation led many to believe it wouldn’t happen as Tim Heidecker was on the East Coast leg of the Tim and Eric Mandatory Attendance Tour. Tim actually flew back to LA for one night just to do the Oscar Special this year, which is some serious dedication for a relatively low budget production.

As a huge fan of On Cinema, here’s my top six most outrageous moments during this year’s On Cinema Oscar Special. Watch it yourself online here.

Gregg Turkington in a purple outfit, white facepaint, and green hair as the Joker

6. Gregg’s appearance as The Joker

To celebrate the new Joker movie, the normally dull, mild-mannered movie buff Gregg dressed up in a full Joker get up. But not as the Joker from the recent 2019 film, instead going with the Jack Nicholson-style Joker from Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman film.

This is somehow funnier than it should be for those of us familiar with Gregg through his Neil Hamburger alter-ego. The Joker and Neil Hamburger are almost kindred spirits somehow. It probably deserves a higher spot on the list as it was hilarious just seeing Gregg dressed up as the Joker, but the rest of this list kind of depends on this so what am I supposed to do?

What can I say, I’m a slave to the format here.

Not-Mark, with LaRoux standing behind him

5. The search for Mark

Mark Proksch was sent to jail last season for a copyright violation involving Gregg’s tapes. Poor Mark hasn’t been seen or heard from since in spite of Gregg’s best efforts.

Tim’s investigator, weapons expert, and conspiracy theorist Michael Matthews (aka “LaRoux”) calls Tim with the happy news he’s located Mark. Sadly, LaRoux shows up with some guy named Steve who happens to look kind of like Mark.

Mark’s celebrity impersonations of W.C. Fields and the Marx Brothers have been a staple of On Cinema for years. In a case of mistaken identity, this time someone else “impersonated” Mark.

The search for Mark continues…

The pastor performs Tim and Toni's marriage ceremony

4. Tim’s convoluted marriage plan

Although we learned last season Tim married Toni (a juror during his murder trial who became his campaign manager in a failed attempt to unseat the district attorney) Tim felt the marriage ceremony at the local city hall wasn’t “Christian enough.” For the Oscar Special he secretly prepared an annulment which Toni reluctantly signed in order for them to have a proper marriage.

Tim awkwardly tries bonding with Toni’s teenage son Matt despite having little in common. When Tim interviews Toni’s (female) pastor Lewis he keeps starring at her legs and flirting with her. Not exactly off to a good re-start of the marriage.

Perhaps the funniest part of this was Gregg’s toast to the couple, which was just a string of references to Gregg’s favorite films — James Bond and the Oh, God! movies — all of which Tim vehemently hates.

Gregg sits in his car (the Mobile VFA) while Tim sits in a director's chair

3. The Mobile VFA

Gregg’s Victorville Film Archive (VFA) went mobile in season 11 when he stacked his VHS tapes in the back seat of his car. In the Oscar Special, Gregg drove the car into the studio. This wound up being a safe space for Gregg when Tim started going on his angry rants. Gregg spends a lot of episode in the car, watching from the perspective of a drive-in moviegoer.

Gregg’s finest moment as the Joker occurs when he’s in the Mobile VFA and honks its horn, interrupting Tim’s conversation with Manuel. Tim looks like he’s about to break character and several people off screen are heard laughing. Gregg opens the car door and smugly says “the Joker strikes again!” before turning to the camera to repeat his new catch phrase.

The Mobile VFA also winds up playing a major part in the finale, which we’ll get to in a moment.

Gregg dressed as the Joker pointing out his Arthur memorabilia

2. Gregg’s tribute to Arthur

Despite being dressed up as the Joker, Gregg has a series of segments and a small display set up to preview a tribute to the 39th anniversary of the film Arthur staring Dudley Moore and Liza Minnelli. Although Gregg intended to air a full tribute next year for the 40th anniversary, Tim insists Gregg just get it over with now.

As usual Gregg wasn’t able to find any real celebrities related to Arthur but he did interview an actress who stared in the recent Arthur remake as well as an affordable Dudley Moore impersonator. Both are interviewed in the passenger seat of his Mobile VFA.

Everyone's laying motionless as the room fills with smoke

1. The carbon monoxide poisoning

Gregg left the Mobile VFA car running in the closed studio, slowly filling it with carbon monoxide. Tim’s wedding dinner meanwhile is staged suspiciously to look like a painting of the last supper with Tim (obviously) as Jesus. Everyone started passing out in their seats or on the floor as several songs play including a remix of Dekkar’s “Empty Bottle.”

After several minutes passed I wondered if this might be the end of On Cinema for good? Fortunately Tim’s bandmate Axiom shows up several minutes later and heroically saves the day.

Many theories abound online about this incident overall. Did the one-handed Axiom from Dekkar single-handedly save everyone from “de car”? Was this the Mobile VFA’s revenge on Tim for destroying Gregg’s previous tape collections? Is it all part of the Joker’s evil plan? There are more questions than answers at this point.

Honorable mentions

  • Tim’s dead son “Tom Cruise Heidecker Jr.” appearing once again in horribly broken CGI form. This was much funnier the first time though it’s still a solid laugh.
  • The ongoing saga of catering company Chaplin’s Chili and their confusing ownership structure and name changes. Worse yet they forgot the salmon, although Mr. Chaplin himself insists that he cooked the chicken in a way that makes it taste like fish.
  • Gregg’s incredibly boring visit to a Hollywood thrift store that sells costumes used in films. He proudly displays two “priceless ensembles” he purchased for $20, which look like generic men’s clothes you might buy at Wal-Mart.
  • Tim ranting about the film Parasite being an actual “parasite” against America, since it’s not an American movie. The fact that clueless pundits unironically made the same point a few hours later somehow makes this predictable political take funnier than it had any right to be.
  • Gregg’s “Tribute to the Joker” is a hallucinatory mashup of the Joker’s various movie appearances. It also subtly foreshadows the smoke-filled ending.

For me it was my first time watching an On Cinema Oscar Special in a movie theater. Yes, I know that doesn’t make much sense but Alamo Drafthouse was livestreaming it several locations, including here in San Francisco. I got there a few minutes early. Fortunately an employee wearing a VFA t-shirt spotted my Dekkar t-shirt and let me know they were running a little behind schedule.

On my in I noticed they were patching a MacBook Pro into the theater’s projection system. I was pleasantly surprised it streamed in HD without AdultSwim.com’s notorious lag and glitch problems.

If you can, it’s definitely more fun to see this type of cult comedy special with a room full of people laughing along — people with a sense of humor as weird as your own.

The mysterious album from The Jejune Institute’s second chapter

February 9, 2020
Sounds of Ascension cover

 

While cleaning my closet I happened to come across an unusual CD in a cardboard sleeve. It’s called The Sound of Ascension: Audio Kool-Aid From The 70’s Most Eccentric Cults & Communes. This is an artifact from the second chapter of The Jejune Institute saga.

The timing of this discovery is perfect as the TV show Dispatches From Elsewhere comes out next month, loosely based on the real (?) events of The Jejune Institute here in San Francisco.

In fact the name “Dispatches From Elsewhere” was the name of the pirate radio show that advertised (among other things) this album. The Jejune Institute’s second chapter essentially started when you brought a radio to Dolores Park and tuned in — turning on and dropping out were strictly optional.

As for this album only a couple of record stores sold it, and you had to ask for it at the register. I bought mine from Aquarius Records on Valencia.

 

Sounds of Ascension outer artwork Sounds of Ascension outer artwork Sounds of Ascension inner artwork Sounds of Ascension inner artwork Sounds of Ascension inner artwork Sounds of Ascension CD label

 

The contents of the album listed on the packaging is pretty much what you’d expect from the title, starting with a track from The Manson Family. The full track listing and more details are listed on Discogs.

At the point where someone jumped through all the hoops to get this album, it’s almost comically obvious there would be a hidden track. For historical interest, I’ve ripped the hidden track and put it on Soundcloud. Listen below if you like.

 

 

The track is a walkabout following a young Eva Lucien and her mother Peggy through San Francisco’s Mission District. With them is a guest known as “Brightwell,” presumably the man making the field recording.

As explained in the liner notes Peggy Lucien was involved with various communes and cults in California, which is why she collected the audio on this album.

Let me delve into the details of the tour.

The walkabout begins on Chula Lane, a tiny alley between Church and Dolores streets. At the time the starting point was marked in the middle of the alley with two painted footprints surrounded by a compass — the first of many guerilla art installations on this tour.

The “fairy tree” Eva mentions is a palm tree on Dolores that has a bunch of holes in it, possibly due to rot. There were a bunch of tiny gold hand prints in the holes at the time to indicate fairies had been there.

Eva’s dad sounds like he’s voiced by Jeff Hull, the man behind Nonchalance (parent entity of The Jejune Institute.) The guy has a very distinctive voice.

One building mentioned in the track was a damaged and abandoned rectory next to an empty lot at the corner of 15th and Dolores. Once a church that burned down under mysterious circumstances, the whole thing was fenced off for at least a decade. A few years after The Jejune Institute closed the rectory building was restored and condos have gone up in the empty lot.

At the same corner there really were unusual hopscotch outlines painted on the sidewalks on either side of Dolores. Nonchalance dutifully repainted these on a regular basis.

The “green boxes” that gave Eva headaches are ordinary utility boxes. At the time they had fake but realistic warning stickers on them, alerting the public of “microwave harassment.”

As they walk down Albion Street, Eva whispers that things are getting smaller. At this point in the walk there were tiny doors, windows, and even a tiny gas meter glued on the side of the building that houses Kilowatt. Unfortunately these were removed by vandals or thieves pretty early on.

The final destination is Adobe Books. They’ve since moved, but at the time they were located on 16th Street. The door in the bookshelf Eva leads you to contained a small art installation, and the shelf itself had a book labeled “Interdimensional Hopscotch” that was chained to the shelf.

That’s the end of the recording, though there are a few other details I can recall.

There were other physical objects to go along with this chapter, many of which were advertised in the Dispatches From Elsewhere radio broadcast. There was a map of the area which included key points along this tour. I also acquired some wooden nickels (or “hobo coins”) from a newspaper stand at 16th and Valencia. These could be traded at the Paxton Gate curiosity shop for a small envelope containing plastic teeth.

Separately you could order a “box of Nonchalance” which came with the microwave harassment warning stickers as well as a wire fence sign explaining that all fences and walls would be “soon obsolete.”

There’s actually quite a bit more to all of this part of the chapter, which is very well documented on Cardhouse.com. I’m sorry to say I didn’t get to dance with Bigfoot though I did meet several people who had the honor.

I did however get invited back to Eva’s fairy tree one final time for the fourth chapter of the story, which I’ve previously documented here.

Chinese New Year at the mall

January 28, 2020
Chinese New Year at Westfield SF Centre

 

After doing some shopping at the Westfield SF Centre mall the other day I thought I’d go upstairs to the fourth and “top” floor of the Emporium half of the building and see what’s up there these days. As it turns out not much: most of it’s now a co-working space and only two restaurants remain.

Even the bar didn’t make it, which I guess isn’t surprising given the limited appeal of a bar inside a mall that closes at 8 PM.

Yet the mall is still dutifully decorating the antique dome. Currently it has red lanterns hanging from it for Chinese New Year, as seen in the above photo.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen it decorated for Chinese New Year before, but then again I never go up there, and by the looks of it nobody else does either.

Recent movie review round-up (2019)

January 21, 2020

Despite intending to on plenty of occasions, I’ve never used this blog to review movies. In an attempt to change that I’ve written up short reviews of movies from the past year or so. Films are reviewed from newest to oldest.

 

 

VHYes

In the mid 80’s a boy gets a camcorder and starts filming random stuff with his friend… over his parent’s wedding video. The first half or so of the film is a comedy based mostly around the deeply weird stuff the boys record on late night television including an Antiques Roadshow knockoff with an unflappably chipper host, a home shopping show hosted by a clueless bickering divorced couple, and a Bob Ross style painting show hosted by a woman who’s clearly nuts.

Oh, and there’s an “edited for television” porn flick about global warming.

For the first half of the film’s short 72 running time it’s packed with genuinely funny, though not always original sketches; making fun of low quality TV has been a staple of sketch comedy all the way from Monty Python to, say, Key & Peele.

Unfortunately the film falls apart as it tries to tug all the different threads into a coherent plot, relying on Lynchian nightmare logic to arrive at a conclusion. The ending makes very little sense and drags on far too long for a movie this short.

Best moment: Mark Proksch’s character smiling as he happily describes how a stained antique bowl was used in unsuccessful heart transplants.

Rating: 6/10

 

 

Uncut Gems

Howard has a lot of problems: he’s deeply in debt with dangerous mobsters, hopelessly addicted to gambling, and his marriage is failing. His fortunes are finally about to turn around though as he’s acquired an uncut gem (under mysterious circumstances) reportedly worth millions.

When NBA star Kevin Garnett shows up and sees the uncut gem, he insists on borrowing it as he thinks it’s a good luck charm. This triggers a series of events that send Howard further into his chaotic downward spiral.

What sets this movie apart is how it manages to ratchet up the tension for over two hours without much physical action. It’s more of a fast-paced drama than a traditional thriller. The synth-heavy soundtrack somehow pairs perfectly with the tone.

Best moment: I can’t believe I’m saying this, but everything about Adam Sandler’s performance as Howard is perfect. I suspect his reputation for lazy frat boy comedies may have unfairly turned audiences away from this one.

Rating: 10/10

 

 

Knives Out

Bestselling mystery novelist Harlan Thrombey died under strange circumstances after a family party at his creepy mansion. As it turns out Harlan has cut off the family financially, so almost everyone at the party has a reason to be angry with him — but would any of them resort to murder?

Private detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig with a goofy southern accent) is hired to solve the murder, but by who? He doesn’t know, which presents a second path to investigate. Like any good “whodunnit” story there’s a lot of twists and turns — and the discovery of a secret passage — before the detective can unravel the mystery.

My only criticism is the movie takes its time in the beginning with a slow setup, though to be fair there’s a good balance between setup and payoff throughout this movie once it gets going.

Best moment: Detective Blanc using the novel “Gravity’s Rainbow” metaphorically, only to immediately reveal he’s never read it and suspects nobody else has either.

Rating: 8/10

 

 

Us

When a family travels to Santa Cruz for a vacation, the mother (Lupita Nyong’o) has flashbacks to her unsettling experience visiting the Beach Boardwalk as a child. Her concerns are brushed off… until a family of scissors-wielding doppelgangers appear outside their vacation home one night.

Us blends horror with social commentary and a few dashes of humor, which won’t be a surprise for those familiar with Jordon Peele’s previous film Get Out. This time around the same ingredients are much better prepared and presented.

Everything gets a little doughy in the middle of the movie when the characters start killing each other. After a certain point it feels like you could take a bathroom break and still know who killed who.

Best moment: Without spoiling it, the twist ending left me thinking about this movie for days. If you like this movie you’re going to want to see it a second time.

Rating: 8/10

Embarcadero waterfront at night

January 12, 2020

Over the past year or so I’ve taken to walking along the Embarcadero waterfront, if for no other reason than to stretch my legs after work. With the early sunsets this winter I’ve been experimenting with after dark photography with my new iPhone 11 Pro Max. Here’s a few I’ve taken along the waterfront.

 

Pier 7

 

Pier 7

This public pedestrian pier features a wooden walkway with classic light fixtures, and is a magnet for both wedding photos and people trying to catch fish in the bay. At night the electric glow of the lights gives it a completely different feel.

Believe it or not, the ye olde fashioned lights and wood deck were built in 1990. In a previous life it was a typical commercial pier with a concrete deck.

There’s an artifact in this photo I really don’t like — the green dots that appear below the lights at ground level. I suspect these are due to the lens material.

 

View from Pier 7

 

San Francisco Belle

Viewed from Pier 7, this paddlewheel ship looks like something from a Mark Twain novel.

Looks can be deceiving however as this ship was built as a floating casino in 1994, and was later moved to San Fransisco and repurposed for dinner cruises and corporate events.

 

Exploratorium

 

View from The Exploratorium

As you can tell from the reflection in the upper left corner, I shot this one through a window. Specifically it’s looking back towards the city from The Exploratorium at night during an After Dark event.

This photo shows just how bright a thin layer of clouds can appear at night when lit from below by a relatively small urban area.

 

Exploratorium

 

Buckyball

This soccer ball within a soccer ball sculpture was installed outside The Exploratorium in 2016. It’s one of those fixtures you can’t help but to notice at night when the LEDs inside it are glowing.

You don’t have to look closely to see the same ghostly green artifacts in this photo like I mentioned earlier regarding Pier 7. From a distance the artifacts look like part of the sculpture.

 

Bay Bridge

 

Bay Bridge and a yacht

The flashy Bay Lights on the Bay Bridge are all lit up as a brightly-lit yacht (at least I think it’s a yacht) glides toward the bridge.

The sky in the background almost looks like a painting. I suspect that’s Apple’s “night mode” quietly stitching together several photos into one. The end result is a little off, but somehow closer to human vision than an unprocessed photo.

 

Moon under Bay Bridge

 

Wolf Moon under the Bay Bridge

Last night was the “Wolf Moon” lunar eclipse in the southern hemisphere. We don’t get to see the eclipse, but the moonrise lights up the sky in the northern hemisphere for an hour or so with a bright orange glow.

The moon often looks larger to our eyes than it does in photos, though when near a human-scale structure like the Bay Bridge the difference is negligible.

Review: Dracula (2020 miniseries)

January 10, 2020

 

The new Dracula three part miniseries from Moffat and Gatiss (Sherlock, Doctor Who) adapt Bram Stoker’s classic novel with the sort of twists and trappings we’ve come to expect from this duo, for better or worse.

It’s available on both BBC and Netflix if you’d like to see it. Here’s my review.

 

Warning: Mild spoilers ahead

Much like the 1950’s Japanese monster movies Dracula is fundamentally an invasion story: a vampire leaves his castle in Transylvania, sailing to England in search of new blood. The obvious modern choice would be to make this a story about immigration with some kind of Brexit allegory, but that’s nowhere to be found in this adaptation.

The first episode starts in the late 19th century with Dracula’s first major victim in the story, Jonathan Harker. We initially meet Harker in a semi-alive state in the care of a convent of nuns. A mysterious nun named Agatha is keen to understand his story and learn more about Dracula, despite her already vast knowledge of vampire legends. We see Harker meet Dracula through flashbacks.

Dracula’s strengths and weaknesses won’t be a big surprise. He feeds on human blood, only comes out at night, can’t stand sunlight or crosses, sleeps in a coffin, drinks blood, etc. Every vampire story is a little different but I suspect most of us have at least a passing familiarity with Dracula.

The first plot twist is kind of a let down either way. For those familiar with the story it’s clear from the start that Sister Agatha is a vampire hunter, and for those that aren’t the reveal of her last name won’t mean anything.

The second big twist involves another one of Dracula’s vampiric traits: he has to be invited in. It’s clever enough that I won’t spoil it here.

 

The second episode focuses on Dracula’s voyage to England. It’s a typical murderer in an enclosed space horror story where the audience knows what’s happening, yet the characters struggle to figure it out before they’re all dead.

We confirm something about this version of Dracula from the last episode; he doesn’t just drink blood to live, he absorbs certain aspects of his victims via their blood. This keeps him a step ahead of everyone else.

The ship contains a big secret: no, not Dracula — we know that from the start. As it turns out Sister Agatha is on board. She’s still trying to understand Dracula right up until she has stop the ship from reaching England.

The episode ends with Dracula reaching the shore of England anyway. But wait! Time has skipped forward by just over a century. Dracula is greeted by armed guards and… Sister Agatha? Huh?

 

The third and final episode is the most original of the series… and the biggest let down. Dracula rapidly adapts his old ways to modern life as though he were a supervillain with a time machine.

Meanwhile the descendant of Sister Agatha who looks exactly like her — and sort of is her, through blood in another obvious twist — continues the journey to discover the true nature of Dracula and the mysterious rules he lives by. Why is he afraid of sunlight and the cross? What do the undead see when they look in the mirror?

All of this comes crashing down in an unsatisfying ending that only partially answers the questions it raises about Dracula.

 

Looking critically at this series I think it needs to be split in half. In the first two episodes we see the setup of the story, with some key twists on a familiar tale. It’s a solid adaptation: just different enough we don’t know exactly what to expect.

The third episode is a unique beast: it takes the stakes (sorry) and drives them forward, but stumbles repeatedly along the way.

The primary climax is perfect: Agatha and her descendant unearth Dracula for who he really is, and how his weaknesses are all related to a central personality defect. The downfall of Dracula isn’t some hero pounding a stake through his chest — it’s Dracula’s own primal fears laid bare.

I want to pause here because it’s a legitimately good twist: “Agatha” forces Dracula to pause and examine himself. After reflecting on his decisions Dracula decides to finally die on his own terms.

The dissection of Dracula’s traits isn’t without its flaws however, as many of them are never explained. Dracula can turn into dogs and bats, and in exactly one scene we see him fly. Are these rules also part of Dracula’s personality? Do they apply to other vampires or undead characters? What exactly are mirrors reflecting? Unfortunately these questions are not addressed. It’s unclear if other vampires like Dracula even exist.

Several parts of the story fall flat in the third episode. Dracula’s last victim is Lucy, portrayed as a vain narcissist who’s so unsympathetic I was rooting for her to die immediately. Dracula’s lawyer (played by Gatiss himself) serves as a comic relief in a story that already has enough comic beats to make his scenes redundant.

Overall I think Dracula is a decent enough adaptation, though the third episode suffers from focus and pacing issues — there’s a solid, unique 60 minute story stretched out to 90 minutes with completely unnecessary “clever” ideas. It would have been a more compelling story if we had the time to see Dracula come to terms with himself.

Just as with the later seasons of Moffat-era Doctor Who and the third season or so onward of Sherlock, Dracula slurps up some promising new ideas before ultimately sputtering out. 

Exploratorium’s Curious Contraptions exhibit

December 22, 2019
The Curious Contraptions in action. No audio due to copyrighted music played at the event

 

50 years ago the Exploratorium opened, a first of its kind museum aimed at teaching science to kids and teens with a 100% hands-on approach to learning. Six years ago the museum relocated from their original Palace of Fine Arts to a new space at Pier 15, adding the new 21 and over “After Dark” series on Thursday evenings.

If there’s one thing both kids and tipsy adults have in common, it’s a tendency to break stuff. Which makes it all the more impressive that many of the exhibits I remember seeing at the Exploratorium as a kid are not only still there, but still work today.

The current Curious Contraptions special exhibit of hand made automatons doesn’t quite have the same hands-on appeal, but it still feels like a natural fit for the Exploratorium, filling the gray area where science meets art.

These automatons are whimsical hand made mechanical contraptions that bring a small scene of some kind to life. Some are powered by electric motors, others need to be cranked by hand. Most are small, not much larger than a shoe box.

As you can see in the video at the top of the post these are all relatively new automatons, built in the last 60 years or so. That surprised me the most; I tend to think of cuckoo clocks or the 19th century coin operated dioramas like you’d find at Musée Mécanique.

Compared to their predecessors the artists building automatons today aren’t as interested in hiding the mechanics in a cabinet, and feature more abstract scenes. What hasn’t changed is the humor — there’s something inherently silly about a little contraption driven by a crank where a more serious story wouldn’t fit the medium. If these were books they’d be pop-up books, not novels.

The largest and in many ways most impressive automaton is the Exploratory Lunacycle from British cartoonist Rowland Emett, featured at the end of the above video. It’s like a psychedelic Jules Verne story brought to life.

Although it wasn’t technically part of the exhibit, I couldn’t help but to notice the Exploratorium’s transparent pinball machine was located nearby, itself an automaton of sorts with all the guts exposed.

Curious Contraptions runs through January 26th.