Running Commentary 12/13/2021
6 min read

Running Commentary 12/13/2021

The Polar Express, Hawkeye (Episode 4), Harlequin Duck


It's less than two weeks out from Christmas, just as a heads up.

Also, there've been a lot of stories in the news about camels lately, haven't there? For one, Bonner Springs, Kansas police spent a day trying to recapture a camel that had escaped from a live Nativity scene. For another, the King Abdulaziz Camel Festival's annual Camel Beauty Contest was rocked by scandal this year when dozens of entrants were disqualified for use of cosmetic procedures to enhance their appearance. Now, I would guess that a "camel beauty contest" would be, at least initially, a tongue-in-cheek affair, since camels are not particularly known for their beauty. But there is apparently a $50 million prize attached, so some people were bound to take it very seriously and even cheat to win.

(A cursory bit of research would indicate that this camel beauty contest has stricter anti-cheating measures in place than some human beauty contests.)



Image Credit: IMDB

The Polar Express

Christmas is a movie-watching time. Not only are the last big releases of the year out then, but many families make a tradition of watching certain films year after year. The Polar Express is one such movie for me, and it's the only such movie that I've seen getting any real hate. It is a, well, a polarizing film. The big thing that puts people off is the animation. Director Robert Zemeckis made a big thing of the motion capture technology used to make the film, which was originally intended to star Tom Hanks in every role. In theory, this could have been great, but in practice, though, I can't really defend it. While the characters' movements are expressive, the textures are still at a pretty primitive level. And mo-cap was really only used for the foreground characters; in the background are too-similar-looking people with fixed facial expressions moving mechanically through the same looping set of motions. The only real defense I can offer for the animation is that it's consistent; it tends to fade into the background after a while and nothing jarring happens to the style or quality to through the audience off.

But setting that aside, along with a few other weird bits (such as the elves all being New Jersey Jewish, save for the one who is Steven Tyler) and what's left is a film that sets a very Christmasy mood. That mood is why I come back to the film every year. Christmas movies often don't feel set at Christmas, at least not to someone from Michigan. They don't seem like they're set during winter. Sure, there's snow (gotta have a white Christmas in a movie) and sure people will be wearing scarves and festive sweaters, but that's not all there is to winter. For one thing, winter is dark, especially around Christmas. The Polar Express is set mostly at night, which amplifies its wintery feel. (The same is true of A Christmas Carol, which has done a lot to establish what "Christmasy" is and which The Polar Express references in several ways.) Additionally, the sound design of The Polar Express evokes winter. Cold, snowy surroundings have a distinct sound to them. In one way, they're quiet, as snow absorbs and muffles sounds. But in another way, they're loud, as sound carries more through colder, denser air. In winter, you hear less, but you hear farther. The Polar Express's soundscape features a lot of low, distant noise, which makes its scenes seem colder than any amount of snow flurries in front of the lens or parkas in the costuming ever could.

Alan Silvestri's score is pretty great, too.


This week we're looking at episode 4 of Hawkeye. Here are my notes:

Photo Credit: Hawkeye Twitter
  • For this being the fourth episode of a six-episode series, it really does seem like the show's still setting things up. For instance, the end credits scene of Black Widow had set up that Yelena Belova would be going after Clint Barton, and she's finally here at the start of the last half, for one fight scene.
  • The front end of this episode seemed to be wasting time. The scenes at the very beginning were okay; I don't need every minute of the show to be wall-to-wall action. But I'd have cut the larpers. Maybe they'll have a really good scene later.
  • Is "Bombshell" a character from the comics? As I said, I'm tired of having to Google these things all the time.
  • My complaints aside, I'm still really enjoying the show. Renner and Steinfeld are both giving really good performances, and I'm excited to see where the story goes.

Bird of the Week

Bird migration is typically latitudinal, with birds moving seasonally closer and further from the equator to keep in their preferred climate. But this week, we have a bird known to fly west for the winter. The Harlequin duck is a small sea duck whose range is split between Atlantic and Pacific populations. The Atlantic population breeds in the rushing rivers flowing into Hudson Bay and the North Atlantic, throughout Iceland, Greenland, and the Canadian Maritime Provinces. They spend the winter on the U.S. East Coast, down through Delaware. The Pacific population breeds in the interior Pacific Northwest from Yellowstone through western Canada and into Alaska. It is these birds who migrate west,  wintering on the seashores of the same regions. The males molt their slate-and-chestnut breeding plumage during the Fall migration; they will often gather in intermediate "molting grounds" while their flight feathers change over. Harlequin ducks have their largest numbers in remote areas of the Aleutian islands, where there are few people to see their flocks.

Male harlequin ducks sport unmistakable white stripes and patches year-round, with slate-blue and auburn plumage during the breeding season, and duller brown feathers otherwise. The females look something like female buffleheads; large-headed, brown, with white patches over their ears. though harlequin hens are larger and paler than buffleheads. Their diet consists of small fish and crustaceans, which they dive after in the surf or the whitewater of mountain rivers.

The term "harlequin" took a long, winding path to be applied to this duck. It began as the French form of the German "Erlköninig" (meaning "host-king" or one who leads an army), which is the name of a mythic figure who led the "Wild Hunt", a nocturnal rampage of fairies and spirits. As Europe was Christianized, the Erlköninig came to be associated with the Devil, his Wild Hunt becoming an event wherein demons chased lost souls into Hell. Thusly did the French begin including the Harlequin in passion plays during the Medieval period. From there, harlequins slowly became less evil and more mischevious. "Harlequin" became the name of a comic character attired in a mask and diamond-patterned tights. (The name and original look of the Batman character Harley Quinn is a reference to this stock character.) The vividly contrasting colors of the drake of this species was considered reminiscent of a harlequin's costume, so it was called the harlequin duck. Linnaeus called it Anas histrionicus, the "stage-acting duck" (from the Latin "histrios", "an actor"). Later the French naturalist Renė Lesson, who is better remembered for describing amphibians and reptiles than birds, placed it in its own genus, also called Histrionicus, where it remains to this day.

See the full archive of birds on Notion

My Ebenezer | B. D. McClay, The Weekly Standard

A review of A Muppets Christmas Carol, from a now-defunct magazine. McClay focuses on how the adaptation accurately realizes Scrooge's sin is uncharitableness, which is a different thing than greed.

The Centuries-Old Sport of Karate Finally Gets Its Due at the Olympics | Tony Perrottet, Smithsonian Magazine

Written for the lead-up to the Tokyo Summer Games, this is an overview of the history of karate (meaning "empty-hand", though it originally meant "Chinese-hand") Begun as a rather meditative practice on Okinawa before Tokyo came to rule the whole archipelago of Japan, it became known internationally after World War II, though the popularized version (a means of self-defense, a competitive sport,  and something to "level up" in, to a new colored belt) was quite different than karate as traditionally practiced.

A Winter's Tale - The Journey of the Snowy Owls | Klaus Weissmann & Dietmer Nill, naturfilm

[VIDEO] A full-length documentary about the heaviest and fluffiest of the owls. This features fantastic footage of snowy owls in Europe, along with neighbors such as reindeer and lemmings. Any snowy owl watching, though, might be insulted by the portrayal of the birds as often-unsuccessful hunters. (45 minutes)

Planet Lion | Catherynne M. Valente, Uncanny Magazine

[FICTION] In the far future, a besieged humanity finds a planet home to large cats whose unique minds are changed forever by the encounter.

See the full archive of curations on Notion