My Sweet Grandma

Well, this week has brought a whole new chapter to Noir106, as our agencies begin their investigations into a number of mysterious matters. Bond asked several of them to investigate the identity of some character named “Jack” and he pointed to an (accidentally recorded) phone call that I took early in the semester while making a video for the class. I can’t believe he’s suggesting that this was a call with a shadowy, unknown Noir106 figure. I was talking to my grandma!  Specifically, we were discussing some Web sites I had helped my kids set up to share their latest activities with her and our family Easter plans!

Now, I wasn’t sure how I was going to be able to prove this, until I remembered that a few weeks before the class started I installed an app on my phone that records all my calls (I figured in a class like this such a tool might be useful.) I dug around on my phone today, and I managed to download the complete audio. Here it is:


Burtis Files: Week Five

Below is my video for this week. I entreat everyone to watch and help me to understand the evidence that I unearthed this week.

I’m also sharing the photos I revealed in the video, in case anyone wants to download them and do any additional analysis.

First, these two pictures I was able to pull of of this week’s video, showing the man who appears to be attacking Groom.


A capture off of last week's video showing a closer pictures of the man.

As I mention in the video, we also had some surveillance cameras in place where we thought Groom might be on his assignment, and I was able to grab this capture:


I believe the fear on Groom’s face is palpable, and the man sitting next to him is clearly the man from the video.

Using the data from these photos, I was able to develop a digital image footprint that I then fed into a some advanced image search tools on the Web. The following photos are what I found. Again, I’ll let everyone draw their own conclusions. . .

Card Play

I decided to tackle a design assignment today: Create Your Own Business Card which was dreamed up by one Lauren Brumfield in a previous ds106 job.

I wanted to develop a calling card for Bond, Black, Groom and me — we’re getting more and more informal requests for our services and it seemed like maybe it was time to take it up a notch.

I’m a big fan of the Noun Project. If you haven’t used it, you should check it out. It’s a great source of simple, elegant icons that you can then modify, mix, and use for your own designs. Many of the icons on the NP are available to use for free, as long as you give proper credit. When you download the images, the credit line is actually appended to the image. That’s a new development at the NP, and, while I understand it, it sort of runs counter to the notion of a clean graphic. I cropped those attributions out, and instead of provided my own credit below. Honestly, I think this approach is better. The text on a graphic can’t be read or indexed by a search engine, so the creator can’t take advantage of the reputation-building feature of linking and searching. My text, on the other hand, is completely machine-readable and indexable, thereby allowing the creator to more easily track where her or his work is being used.

In any case, I decided to find an iconic representation for each of us and use that in my first design iteration. Take a look at my attempt:


I chose a very simple color palette to to complement the basic icons, but added a touch or color to them to make them stand out a bit more. Obviously BBB&G wouldn’t use a landline for contact; Twitter is really the best channel for getting in touch with us, so a hashtag just made sense. (Thanks to Black for pointing out that hashtags can’t contains special characters. I had to take the ampersand out.)

I liked this attempt, but I thought I’d create a second version that paid homage to another character in our group, a mysterious presence who were still trying to wrap our heads around. Take a look at my second attempt:


The design of this one isn’t as clean, I think. But it’s got a kind of playfulness to it that I like. I’m curious to hear what other people thing.

Honestly, there’s not a lot of playfulness in the air these days. Groom appears to still be either missing or hiding. . .his last tweet indicated he’d pre-scheduled some posts for this week (perhaps he sensed the job was going bad?), but I’ve seen nothing published on his blog!

I’m looking into the matter myself and I’ve unearthed some very troubling evidence. I’ll be sharing that today or tomorrow in my weekly video. Stay tuned.

Bond doing his part to try and find the strange man who appeared with Groom during the weekly video, but when I speak with him he’s still playing it pretty tight-lipped. He won’t really tell me much about the whole El Jota character and what exactly their previous work together involved.

Black has been mysteriously quiet of late. I’m not entirely sure what’s going on with her. She hasn’t contacted me directly since that last video when she received the  mysterious phone call and suddenly ducked out. However, I did discover today that she’s been reaching out directly to El Jota!

And, then, of course there is this El Jota bird. Everyone seems to think he’s on the up and up, but I’m not so sure. Did you see his revelation the other day that he appears to be able to make himself invisible? I don’t know about all of you, but I find that a bit unsettling. Right?

I guess what I’m saying is that making these business cards was a great exercise in design, but I’m not really sure if the four of us can make use of them anytime soon?




Killer’s Kiss: scenes of NYC, some classic noir shots, and a bit of animated giffery

Last night, I watched Killer’s Kiss which I had never seen before. I found the movie strangely compelling. It has a lot of flaws, and my reading/research after watching turned up that Stanley Kubrick was hardly proud of this effort and considered it basically on par with a student film. He produced it with no budget or shooting permits (he was actually on welfare at the time), and I thought that explained a lot. There are definitely moments of the movie that feel like you are watching raw footage of New York City, not carefully constructed and designed scenes.

But, generally, I really, really enjoyed it. There it a freneticism to it that keeps the film moving in a way that feels sort of inevitable and desperate (which is why the end felt for me, cliched and disappointing). I also loved the vision of New York City, particularly the sequence towards the beginning that shows small vignettes of scenes of Time Square from that period:

(What is that cat-person eating candied apples all about, anyway?)

I thought the sound in the movie was also interesting. There’s actually relatively little dialog, but lots of ambient city noise. Apparently, Kubrick fired his sound crew during the filming, and ended up adding all the dialog in during post-production (including having to bring in a different actress to voice the original female lead).

I was on the lookout for some classic noir-ish cinematography, and there was this shot fairly early on with the standard “venetian blind” effect. But mostly I wanted to share this one because I was wondering throughout the entire film while Vinnie’s office was plastered with blue jeans ads?


By far the frame that I loved the most and wanted to share was this one, in the scene where Davey’s manager is getting beat up (and ultimately killed) by Vinny’s thugs:

killers_kiss9The characters are lit in such a way that they actually look like moving shadows, and the effect is dramatic and a bit uncanny.

Aside from looking for some shots to share, I was also on the lookout for a scene that I might want to make into an animated gif, and when I saw the sequence in which Gloria is telling the story of her childhood, I knew exactly what I wanted to do.

I should say that I loved this sequence the best out of any part of the movie. I loved the juxtaposition of the footage of Gloria’s ballerina sister dancing  all along while Gloria tells the very sad, strange story of her family. Given Kubrick’s non-existent budget, you can understand the choice: he could either just shoot Gloria telling the story, which goes on for a while, and would probably be a pretty dull piece or he would actually have to film some sort of flash-back of that entire story which would be complicated and expensive to shoot.

Instead he let’s the story be told behind this very simple footage of a ballerina dancing (who was, by the way, played by Kubrick’s second wife, Ruth Sobotka.) In comparison the kind of frenetic, cityscape of the film, this sequence stands apart, as the single figure dances on a black stage, lit by footlights.

I created two gifs of the sequence, and I was really pleased with the way they looped naturally. It’s always nice when gif loops in a way that makes it feel seamless:




Hat Attack

Well, Groom inspired me to tackle this particular ds106 assignment: Graphic Gift, added to the Assignment Bank by the inimitable Michael Branson-Smith. A summary:

Find or scan an old advertisement (high resolution) and create a piece of cool clip art by extracting and cleaning up a particular element. Be sure to use a PNG file type to preserve transparencies, and try to make a high and medium resolution version. Inspired by Phil A Go’s awesome Toyota Corona Graphic Gift.

Groom got fancy and deposited a whole animated Jack Nicholson in the back pocket of his graphic gift. I went for a simpler idea, and I’ll admit I caved and used Photoshop. I fully endorse Groom’s advice to experiment with the free and full-featured open-source image editing tool, GIMP, but I don’t have it installed on this particular computer.

I knew that what I wanted to work with was a standard icon of our noir exploration, and a quick Google search found me a page from the 1956-1957 Fall/Winter Sears Roebuck catalog.

Isn't he dapper?
Isn’t he dapper?

I pulled this into Photoshop, and quickly used the magic lasso tool to outline that gorgeous hat.


Once I had the whole thing selected, I copied it, created a new layer, and pasted it n.


I turned off visibility of that original layer, and used the Transform tool to add a jaunty angle.


And now I can offer everyone in #noir106 this fedora icon, angled perfectly for you to use in all your visual assignments.





I wish I had found a higher resolution version of the page, so that I could offer a larger version.

I will say that I found tons of amazing hats in old Sears Roebuck catalogs, so I think I’m going to keep doing this until I have a huge collection of vintage hats tosshare.

Note: The top version will work well on a light background. The bottom will look okay on a dark background. The dark version was hard because the original catalog page is white, but this should be okay — I figured a dark background version was important given, well, noir. 🙂



After the Killers

For a long time, years, I didn’t think about it. I moved constantly, counting each year with a new city: Indianapolis, Columbus, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia.

I didn’t even notice that every year I was heading a little bit further east, until one day I was getting on a train in Philly and saw that in few hours I could be in Atlantic City. I was a midwest boy, and I’d unknowingly migrated to the ocean. I thought I’d feel out-of-place when I realized how far I strayed, but the only thing I could think was that I had to see that big body of water.

Two days later, I was standing with my feet in the sand, the boardwalk splayed behind me in both directions.

It was bigger than I’d ever imagined, but, to be honest, I’m not sure I’d ever tried to imagine how big and blue the ocean could be.

Walking back to my hotel, which was tucked in the shadows two blocks from the ocean, I did a double-take.

The poster was big, almost as big as me. So Ole Anderson looked almost life-size in black and white, big mitts poised in front of his face, getting ready to duck a jab, red lettering shouting across his forehead.

“One Night Only!! The Ox of Sweden on the ComeBack Tour of the Decade! At the Coney Island Stadium! April 12, 1931”

I must have stared at that poster for 15 minutes, trying to figure out what I was seeing.

Truth was, I hadn’t thought about Ole Anderson in years — I’d almost forgotten I’d ever met him. And here he was, staring at me out of a poster on the Atlantic City boardwalk.

April 12 was three days away, and I knew where I was going next.

He won the fight, in only two rounds. His opponent was big and Irish, but he was slow.

I waited until the crowd at the stadium had dissipated. I knew he’d probably left, but I lingered outside the doors, hoping I might catch sight of him.

I wanted to talk to him, but I didn’t know why. I had no idea what I would say. I only knew that I had to ask him how he got away.

It was almost thirty minutes before he turned the corner, and I recognized his enormous frame, lumbering down the sidewalk towards me.

I wondered if he’d recognize me. He glanced at me as he passed, and in that moment, I felt smaller than I’d ever felt.

The last time I’d seen Ole he’d been splayed out in a bed in that dingy, rundown boarding house. He’d seemed so defeated and done.

But not tonight. He seemed larger than life. He must have gone three or four paces past me, and I figured that was that. But then he turned.

“Hey. You, ” he pointed a sausage of a finger at my head. “I know you. From Summit. You’re that kid.”

I nodded silently, not sure what I was supposed to say next.

“You see the fight tonight?” he asked. And when I nodded, his eyes seemed to grow a bit wider, as if in a surprise.

“Watcha doing in New York, here? How’d you know I was fighting?”

“I saw a poster, down in New Jersey, a few days ago.”

I see him roll his eyes, “Jeez. Fugazy,” he mumbles.

“Excuse me, ” I ask, not certain I’ve heard him correctly.

“Fugazy — he’s the promoter. Sort of runs this place.” He gestures off to the stadium. “Says he’s going to make something of me. Putting posters up all over the place.”

“Well. . . there was a big crowd. And you did win.”

He sighs. “You’re kidding, right? Sure, I won. And next week, we’re going to put a man on the moon.”

I guess he notices my confusion, because he keeps talking.

“You remember that night? Four years ago? When you found me in that boardinghouse.”

I nod, not sure at all where this is going.

“They found me the next morning, early. I went out for a paper and coffee, and of course they were waiting. I knew they would be.”

“How’d you get away? ” I ask, even though I know he’s going to tell me now, whether I ask or not.

He shrugs. “I got hurt real bad, and then I begged, cried, swore I’d make it right. And I guess they believed me. Said if I got back on the circuit, kept fighting, and winning, and making them lots of dough, they’d let me live.”

“But. . .what if you don’t win?”

“Don’t you get it? I always win. And I always keep fighting. Can’t stop now. Can’t lie down again.”

I stare at him, letting this sink in.

He lifts a hand in a gesture that sort of says “Good-bye” and sort of says “What are you going to do?”

Then, he just turns, walks away and disappears into the shadows and dark.

And suddenly, he doesn’t look big anymore. What seemed like swagger, I now realize is him holding his body carefully, to make the pain a little less.

I turn, too, and this time I don’t look back.


I’ve been writing this alternate ending (or perhaps “extended version” is better) in my head all week. Actually, I had this grand plan of writing an ending in which Nick and Ole had to seek out the medical assistance of Dr. Evans (of The Shadow: Death Triangle), and when Ole realizes that the only way he can stay alive is to run, he decides to look up his old friend Frank Chambers (from Postman), but I couldn’t really make it work. Maybe I’ll try again one day. 

What was most fun for me was to try and imitate the style of the original. The short, succinct sentences and paragraphs. The occasional tiny detail to set the scene. The careful, taut dialogue. 

I’ve read a few of Hemingway’s other Nick Adams stories, so I know I’m violating a whole narrative tradition here, but it was still fun to imagine how Ole might survive but still have a story with no happy ending. 

Out of the War and Into Noir

As Week One of noir106 draws to a close, I wanted to offer some of my own impressions of Noir. I’m not ashamed to admit that I’m not a Noir expert. I decided to teach this class late last fall, and by then Bond and Groom had already decided to use Noir as the lens of this iteration of ds106. I’ll be learning, along with all the students, about what Noir is and how it can inspire us creatively this spring.

If I have any experience with Noir as a genre, it tends to be more with radio drama. As a child, my Sunday nights were often spent listening to NPR’s Big Broadcast, a weekly homage to old-time radio. I was a big fan of Johnny Dollar. I loved the heightened drama and suspense of those shows, and the over-the-top acting. I’m also a big mystery fan, so I enjoyed the unraveling of the plots, even if the outcome was sometimes a bit obvious.

I also spent a lot of my childhood watching old films on AMC. I’m having fun revisiting some of those and thinking about their noir-ish overtones.

In doing some reading about Noir this past month or so, I think the thing that fascinated me most was the notion that American Noir was in many ways a response to our experience in WWII. There are a couple of factors coming to play there. First, it’s probably important to remember that the film industry was relatively nascent at that time, and, as happens when any new technology or mass media captures the public’s imagination, there was still a fair amount of concern and hand-wringing about how these productions would affect and shape our citizenry and culture.

To that end, Hollywood operated under the Motion Picture Production Code (also known as the Hays Act) during this era. The Code attempted to regulate what kind of content was acceptable for American films to portray. The code went into affect in the early 30s, and if you look at movies from that era, it’s striking how upbeat and sunny they are. During WWII, it seems there was an even stronger sense that American films needed to keep Americans feeling good — because, frankly, overseas there was a lot to feel not so good about.

That juxtaposition really is striking, and I find myself thinking about how WWII marked our foray into a truly global culture, where we were, as a country, confronted in ways we’d never been confronted before with the realities of global politics and what it meant to be a world leader. WWII ended with us winning (at a huge price of American soldiers’ lives)–but it also ended with Russia winning, and with that came the looming threat of communism, which, for many Americans represented a kind of dark, foreboding danger from beyond.

I’m neither a film historian nor a historian of any kind or merit, so these are merely my clumsy attempts to try and frame the moment when Noir appears to grow on the American cinematic scene. And I find this context and framing so interesting. Thinking about how these films were a reaction against the forced sunniness of the Hays Act and how we were just coming out of global war that was, for many, a nightmare, changes my impression of them. They’re more than just dramatic, black-and-white suspense films. Instead they’re a reflection of our cultural sense of fear and embedding danger.

As a final note, I was unaware until recently about the alternate ending for Double Indemnity, in which Neff was actually depicted dying in the gas chamber. Apparently, this was filmed, but at the last minute taken out. (The actual footage is apparently lost.)  Billy Wilder decided that, in the end, the film didn’t need it. But in addition, perhaps there was some sense that this raw depiction of public execution was going too far. It’s so interesting to me how that bar of “too far” moves and in response to what social, cultural, and political forces.