Thursday, January 2, 2020

Narrative Rules by the Numbers (The Rise of Skywalker)

If I were to do my usual pop-culture-critique-by-way-of-autobiography thing vis-a-vis Star Wars: Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker it would probably run on for like twenty thousand words, and that sheer quantity of verbiage is not the "numbers" to which the post's title refers. So let me just jump to the bottom line: I liked it, on balance. It had flaws, and it had bright spots. I reacted to it very emotionally, which I mean in a good way. And I could also dissect what worked and what didn't and what was perfect and what should have been done differently or not at all for another ten thousand words, minimum, but in the interest of finishing a blog post for once, let me just offer an illustrative compare'n'contrast. SPOILERS ABOUND. I mean, come on, people.

The Rule of Three versus The Rule of Two

I never really shipped Kylo Ren and Rey, but by the end of TROS I bought into it. I think the movie did a good job handling Ben Solo's redemption arc (so much so that it makes me want to go back and rewatch Episodes VII and VIII to see how the whole thing hangs together knowing how it ends). And the thing I genuinely appreciated the most was the bittersweet ending, with Ben willingly giving his life to save Rey's, via magic Force/Life(Love) transfusion. It might have struck some people as a deus ex machina, especially inelegant given that never before in the saga have we ever seen a Jedi use this particular Cure Critical Wounds spell Force power. (Unless you count Baby Yoda in The Mandalorian. Which of course we are supposed to; Disney's not stupid and the timing of the Mando episode where this is a thing compared to the release date for TROS is the furthest thing in the galaxy from a coincidence.) BUT, at least I can give the screenwriter credit for correctly employing the Rule of Three, wherein we don't just see the healing Force power come out of nowhere at the very end. We see it three times; once when it doesn't matter, once when it does matter, and once when it means everything.

  • First, Rey uses it to heal the serpent on Pasana. It's a nice character moment, showing that Rey is a gifted Force adept capable of doing new things no one taught her to do. And it further underlines that she's a noble soul who finds non-violent solutions to problems, is at one with nature, can do more than just destroy, etc. etc. All of which is legit great storytelling. I merely classify it as "doesn't matter" because there were other ways to get out of that plot obstacle. Between herself, Chewbacca, Poe, Finn and BB-8, they doubtless could have fought their way past one giant angry snake. The fact that the characters had other options makes it seem like less of a violation of narrative logic, the whole "since when can Jedi do that?" question notwithstanding.
  • Then during the duel on the wreckage of the second Death Star, Rey impales Kylo Ren on his own lightsaber, which is more good character work, showing how Rey is more than just a vessel for fairytale nobility, though of course she immediately regrets it and therefore her very next action is to heal her enemy. This time it's much more consequential; the story goes in a wildly different direction if Rey just leaves Kylo Ren there to die. This is how the Rule of Three is supposed to work. The new idea gets introduced lightly, which feels like a set-up for something later, and then there's a callback, which feels like a payoff. BUT THEN ...
  • ... Rey expends all her energy besting Palpatine in Force combat and burns herself out and dies. Ben Solo reappears and finds her lifeless body and grieves for a moment before making a last-ditch attempt to save her. So now it becomes clear that it didn't just matter that Rey saved Kylo Ren, so that he could come back and help her fight Palpatine, but also she taught this cool new Force trick to him so that he could use it later, and also also by showing him mercy and the healing power of love she kickstarted his ultimate redemption which climaxes in his own self-sacrifice to bring her back. And that, of course, means everything because in the end Rey is the hero who survives and Ben is the reclaimed villain who dies, every archetype aligning with the pattern.

Also, Kylo Ren/Ben Solo's arc is better than Darth Vader/Anakin Skywalker's. Come at me!

So that was great. The Rule of Three is solid. As opposed to the Rule of Two, which is the utter worst and one of my biggest storytelling pet peeves (which is saying something). And to be clear, I'm not just talking about the first two-thirds of the Rule of Three here. It can be perfectly well and good, depending on the story and its scope, to have a set-up and a payoff and no additional third layer after that, to introduce something in a slightly misdirectional way and then return to it later more emphatically and then be done with it. I'm ranting here about a specific usage of the Rule of Two, which I'll highlight in the movie and then rant about some more.

  • When we first see Rey in TROS she is meditating and trying to contact the spirits of Jedis past. Her mantra is "be with me." But it isn't working, and she's beginning to doubt it will ever work. Given that she is floating in lotus position and creating intricate orbiting patterns of large rocks, the problem does not seem to be her level of power of degree of control or amount of training she has received. What could the underlying issue be ...?
  • ... welp, guess we'll never know! Because on Exegol, when she tries again to get the Jedis past to be with her, this time they respond. She hears their voices, their platitudes of encouragement, and finds the inner strength to rise and face Palpatine again. Super-duper amped-up-with-the-power-of-all-the-Jedis Rey turns Palpatine's own dark power back on him and he lightning-flays himself to nothingness, Which, don't get me wrong, was cool. But bafflingly unexplained.

This is not showing a thing once in a smallish way so the audience accepts it as a viable thing, then bringing it back again later having already obviated the need to pause to introduce it so it can just be a rad element in the moment. In TROS's good Rule of Three, the first time we see the healing trick Rey can definitely do the healing trick. How she learned it, how she's able to do it, how she knows how it works, all of that is irrelevant. Here's a thing she can do, and this may be important again later on. In the bad Rule of Two, the first time we see the "be with me" we're actually seeing its absence. Rey definitely cannot do it. In any human understanding of narrative, of how stories work, this implies a journey of discovery; if she can't do it now, she has to learn how to do it, or figure out why she can't do it, or build herself up to be able to say she's earned it, or something. But TROS doesn't give us that journey. Like, at all. Why does the thing that didn't work on Ajan Kloss work on Exegol? There's really only one answer that holds any water, and it's "because that's when the story needs it to work" which is always the WORST possible way to justify something in a narrative.

There's a not-at-all uncommon trope in the pulpy kind of stories I like which goes like this: a two-fisted hero brawls his way through adventure after adventure. Then he encounters a villain who doesn't go down for the count with one punch. So the hero punches the villain again, but the villain still doesn't go down. In fact, the villain hits the hero and for once, the hero gets knocked down. So the hero has to shake his head, collect himself, and then ... punch the villain one more time! Really hard this time, and down he goes! And that is the end of the villain, phew. It is deeply, deeply dumb. It is literally the old chestnut about trying the same thing over and over and expecting different results, but actually getting the desired outcome. It is a brain-dead variation on the Rule of Three which makes it kind of feel like a story is supposed to go, and in very select circumstances it can totally work, while in others it works if you don't pick at it, but it always sticks in my craw as lazy and unsatisfying. I vastly prefer a story where the ending hinges on some element of surprise or discovery, by all means put the hero in peril by having the old reliable approach not work but then have the hero improvise or realize a new approach! Show me something clever, or thematically resonant, or ideally both at once, please and thank you.

Clearly TROS failed to fulfill this humble request. And I'll just go ahead and play Monday-morning quarterback and say it wouldn't even have been that hard for the story to follow basically the same outline but not fall prey to the bad Rule of Two. Most of the ingredients were right there. At the beginning of the movie there's clearly a tension between Rey and Poe about whether the Resistance or her Jedi training is more important. She agrees to go on the mission to locate a Sith Wayfinder for the Resistance, but really that is an extension of her training, too. The whole crew of heroes override her wishes to go alone. But over the course of the story she's always going off on her own anyway, in the weird astral battles with Kylo Ren, aboard the star destroyer when she ends up in his trophy room, on the ocean moon when she takes a skimmer to the wreck by herself, on Ahch-To where she tries to exile herself, and in the Sith temple right up until Ben Solo shows up. Ben is of course a fellow Jedi, as are the spirits that ultimately give her the strength to overcome her adversary.

But imagine how much cooler it could have been if after all of that Rey had realized that compartmentalizing her Jedi life to one side and her Resistance life to the other was wrong. That the Jedi have always been a bit wrong, holding themselves separate from others, not allowing themselves to love and form families, isolated inside their Temple (just like the Sith), inducting children into their ranks with no meaningful consent (just like the First Order). If Rey had realized that connections with real flesh and blood people all around you from all different backgrounds was far more important than connecting with ancient traditions held by the dead. Not that all traditions are bad! Not the honoring the past is meaningless at best or evil at worst! But just imagine if Rey had had one moment of clarity that bridged point A and point B in her bad Rule of Two. If at her lowest point she had tried again to reach out to the dead Jedis, and failed again, and then tearfully reached out again to the sky above, to Finn, to Poe, and reached out further, to Maz Kanata and Rose Tico, to the random Aki-Aki on Pasana and the old junkscrubber lady on Jakku, to all the living rather than the dead, not to ask for their power or wisdom or secrets, just to acknowledge commonality and love and life. AND THEN that could have been the gateway, to truly being one with the Force, and being able to hear the voices of the elders who had gone before. The fact is, if we look at the whole nine episode saga, that when Palpatine revealed himself, Mace Windu couldn't destroy him. Yoda couldn't destroy him. Anakin fell under his sway. Obi-wan didn't have a clue how to stop him. Luke managed not to be seduced, but still couldn't defeat him. Vader dealt him a setback at best. And even the dyad of Rey and Ben Solo couldn't stand up to him (well, him and, as we learned, all the souls of all the Sith for all time). The idea that Rey could finally, ultimately destroy Palpatine with the help of the other Jedi - who had all individually failed up to that point! - is a bit underwhelming. It's just punching the Emperor again, but really hard this time. Oh but what could have been if, instead of pitting the light religion and its adherents against the dark religion and its devotees, the lasting victory was achieved by Rey drawing strength from the common people, the non-Sith and non-Jedi which both Palpatine and the other Jedi had always dismissed as relatively unimportant. That could have been something really special.

And then, if I had my druthers, when our hero got to the point of rechristening herself, she wouldn't have chosen a name that hearkened back to prophecies about the Balance of the Force, that was inextricably linked to both Jedi and Sith, but rather a name that reflected (dare I say it?) multiple generations of public service for the greater good, from serving in the Senate to adopting orphans to fighting in the Rebellion and the Resistance. Keep all the imagery in the epilogue the same, exactly the same, show the force ghosts of Luke and Leia smiling beatifically in the desert sunset. Just change one word.

"I'm Rey."

"Rey who?"

"Rey Organa."

Thursday, September 12, 2019

DnD (definitely niche demographics)

Remember when I started this blog and some of the first things I ever blogged about were my eldest child, aka the little guy, who at the time was an only child and a baby? Yeah, he's eleven now, his birthday falling in the middle of last week. For most of his life, at this point, his birthday has coincided with various other bits of craziness - Labor Day, the beginning of a new school year (which used to primarily impact him and his siblings but now is equally significant for my wife, who is teaching at community college full-time), etc. Thus his birthday always gets stretched out a bit, to the point where he ends up averaging three separate celebrations per annum. The actual date of birth remains sacrosanct for the nuclear family, even if it's a busy weekday, and the (not-so-but-still-kinda-)little guy receives presents from his parents and sibs, along with any others which might have come in the mail, plus he gets to decide what's for dinner. Often there is cake as well. But then there are the other satellite celebrations, which vary from year to year, ranging from a get-together with grandparents at the beach in close-enough late August, to gatherings with local family in later September when everyone's schedule allows, to the designated birthday party activity or outing for friends which perforce has to be on the weekend, and so on.

Point being, his birthday was last week but I'm still fielding questions about what he's into and what kind of gifts he might like, as there are still nominal commemorations to come. It's trickier every year as he's just starting to set aside childish things, and trickier the further we get past the actual birthdate because he's already hauled in a ton of loot and the good ideas (or low-hanging fruit) have already been taken. Which leads me to browsing around Amazon, looking for things he might be into with nothing more than keywords to guide me. For example, he's on a big fantasy kick these days, D&D and whatnot, so dragons seem like fair game.

And then I run across something like this:


I mean I can answer the what, because it's right there on the product page: "The Freedom Dragon is an imposing figure that is fiercely devoted to the idea that all living creatures should be free. Its appearance inspires courage and determination to all those fighting for just causes. Though its appearance makes it seem stern and uncaring, the Freedom Dragon is a strong and determined protector of all those it feels are facing injustice"

Me: *blink blink* OK, sure, I guess ... *reads further*

"REALISTIC APPEARANCE FOR MULTIPLE USES: Realistic, educational, and fun, this figurine is suitable for a range of interests, including collectors, enthusiasts, teachers, and kids. Admire it on a shelf, use it in the classroom, or simply enjoy playing with it."

Me: *blink blink blink*

It takes all kinds. It's not hurting anybody. I just ... just, wow. What a time to be alive.

Friday, December 21, 2018

The Maximum Decembrion Span of the Annum

Good news, everyone: we made it through another year! Welcome to 2018: The Year What Was In Pop Culture Experiences! I've been celebrating Decembrion since 2013, so to properly contextualize yourself for the proceedings you might want to go back to parts one and two from that year, parts one and two from 2014, or the somewhat condensed versions from 2015, 2016 and 2017.

Now, without further ado, the Top Ten!

1. Best late bandwagoning (third annual!) Outlander. Fairly or unfairly, I feel like it is often at my urging that my wife and I take the plunge into some new pop culture (usually television) obsession. I'm constantly immersed in industry insider news and hear about things being developed long before they are released to the public, and then if something really catches my interest I suggest adding it to our rotation of appointment tv and (mostly) DVR backlog. But this one was pretty much all my wife! I was aware that there was this phenomenon called Outlander, mostly because several of my Facebook friends would often get overheated about upcoming season premieres and finales and whatnot, but despite the connection to speculative fiction due to the time travel element, and the testament to quality inherent in starting as popular novels and then being adapted into equally popular prestige tv, it just didn't occur to me to give it a try. But my wife asked if we should, and since I'm the first to acknowledge the imbalance I cited above, I was happy to indulge her.

And I am glad we did, as I am now pretty much hooked, albeit still a couple of seasons behind. I think Season 4 is unfolding on Starz as I write this, whereas my wife and I are still creeping up on the end of Season 2. I do understand the devotion the show inspires, because it blends a central (oft-times steamy!) romance with historical adventure fiction (plus a decent dash of can-history-be-changed philosophizing) and manages to juggle tones all the way from squirm-inducing horror to laugh-out-loud comedy. I particularly appreciate the slight inversion of the leads: Jamie is absolutely dreamy, if a bit simple and predictable, while Claire contains multitudes. She probably spends more time scowling, brooding, and looking pensive than she does smiling, which seems like an obvious thing for a protagonist but all too often gets lost when everyone insists female characters have to be likable above all.

2. Best movie actually made for grown-ups I saw in the theater Crazy Rich Asians. I made a stray remark on Facebook a couple years ago about how every time I sit down to watch a movie, whether it's at home or especially in the theater, it tends to be something for kids, either explicitly (an animated feature marketed to children) or implicitly (an SFX-heavy escapist PG-13 movie about super heroes or space sagas or whatnot). If I'm home, and I'm watching a movie, that usually means it's Saturday Movie Night for my progeny and the featured fare falls squarely in the former category. If it's the theater, I'm either taking my kids to a big release cartoon OR my whole family is out at a Star Wars screening OR I'm with my buddies watching the latest MCU installment, so that splits across both categories. My wife and I sometimes go on movie dates, but often as not that's finally getting to see Wonder Woman or Lego Batman or something. When she and I are at home and have the den and entertainment center to ourselves, we're far more likely to be bingeing on the current Golden Age of Scripted TV (see above) than sitting through a film. So consuming cinema pitched to demographics above teenagers has become rare.

But (and here's where I sneak in some general life updating that isn't directly pop culture related) this year marked a tremendous mileston for my wife and I as co-parents: the bino started full-time, all-day kindergarten. Sure he'd been going to pre-school semi-regularly for a while, but when late August rolled around and the first day of school arrived, for the very first time we dropped off the little guy at the intermediate school and then took the little girl and her little brother to the bus stop. It kind of sucks to admit it, but let's be honest: this was more of a financial watershed than anything else. The kids are always growing up, in big and small ways, every day, but there was a clear line in the sand where we were finally able to stop paying a daycare center to deal with one or more of them while my wife and I were at work, and simply let our tax-funded public education system take care of it. Which is pretty nice! And to celebrate, my wife and I both played hooky that Monday to go out on a day-drinking movie date for grown-ups. This of course led us to our old reliable neighborhood (35 minutes away) Alamo Drafthouse, one of our solid happy places. The only flick that was playing mid-day that seemed remotely watchable was Crazy Rich Asians, and even though rom-coms aren't generally my thing I was still committed to the day-drinking movie date idea enough to buy two tickets. And wouldn't you know it, it was pretty great! You do probably know it, since just about everyone went and saw it this summer, I'm not unearthing some hidden gem here or anything.

3. Only movie actually made for grown-ups I saw in the theater, honestly Crazy Rich Asians. Other than that it was two MCU films, a Star Wars film, The Incredibles 2, and one more I will get to later but which was absolutely a cartoon for children. I'm not kidding, you could set an ancient stone circle by how often I go to the movies for something aimed at my actual demographic.

4. Most underwhelming double-feature The Grinch/Who Framed Roger Rabbit? So yeah, the new Grinch movie from Illumination was the only other movie I went to see in the theater this year (so far, who knows what Christmas break may bring). I had zero interest in this, it may very well go without saying, but the thing is, my kids loooooooove the Grinch. We own the book, and the Chuck Jones cartoon on DVD, and they would watch the DVD year round except that I pack it up with the rest of the Christmas decorations every January and only let it out after Thanksgiving. My kids are also getting old enough that sometimes they watch tv with my wife and me (football, mostly) so they were exposed to the full force of the advertising campaign for the Grinch movie, and they begged to go see it. There happened to be a Saturday where we had no plans, my wife was working, and it was rainy, so I caved and took them to the multiplex to see it.

And it was ... fine. It didn't retroactively ruin anyone's childhood, it didn't completely miss the point of the original, it had a couple of genuinely entertaining moments and a lot of padding to stretch the ideal 22-minute runtime out to four times that length. It just felt entirely unnecessary. (It also really doubled down on the idea that there was definitely a Who-Jesus and that Christmas was a religious and not a secular holiday for the Whos, with a bunch of carolers terrorizing the Grinch with a jazzy rendition of God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen, but that's really a whole separate kettle of fishes and loaves.)

So that was Saturday around midday, but as mentioned above Saturday night is usually movie night and since I had already given in to the kids once I proposed that they let me pick the evening entertainment. This year the kids all developed an appreciation for Looney Tunes and their sensibilities, so I suggested we watch Who Framed Roger Rabbit? I assured the kids that Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck were in it, along with Mickey and Donald and lots of other characters they no. The kids reluctantly agreed.

In the end, I felt like I owed the kids an apology. I had never seen Roger Rabbit before, but I knew it by reputation (including its inclusion in the 1001 Movies list, which I no longer consider myself actively working through but still enjoy occasionally ticking the boxes for). As it turns out, the movie is not that great! The interaction between the live-action and animated elements is impressive, especially for the 1980's, but way too often it feels like Zemeckis is just kind of coasting on that whole aren't-these-special-effects-innovations-blowing-your-mind thing. (Which is, I believe, kind of Zemeckis's whole thing these days.) In general, though, the movie isn't quite wacky and zany enough to hold kids' attentions, and it's not deep or developed enough to hold an adult's attention, either. Plus, hokey smokes, Roger Rabbit may very well be one of the worst, most annoying characters of all time. Rough day in movie-watching, that one. But speaking of rough ...

5. Most disappointing nostalgia trip DC Elseworlds. This year, DC Comics finally decided (or I finally noticed) to put out some hefty trade paperback collections of some of their Elseworlds stories. These are tales where the tropes commonly associated with a marquee character get filtered through a different setting or genre, and mixed up with the tropes inherent to those. Basically an exercise in 'wouldn't it be cool': imagine if baby Superman's rocket from Krypton had landed in medieval Europe instead of 20th century America, or how the Justice League would have functioned if Superman had never come to Earth at all, and the team lacked its moral compass and embodiment of altruistic virtue. I love superheroes and I love the depths of worldbuilding and continuity that comics pull off, and I love stories that flip and remix familiar ideas, and I especially love superhero stories that do so because there's so much material to work with. So I put the Elseworlds collections on my wishlist and got the first two Batman volumes for my birthday.

I finished the first (larger) volume and am still working through the second and ... man are they a mixed bag. I had some fond memories of Elseworlds from the heights of my comics collecting in the 90's, when as often as not I'd be frustrated by the inconsistent scheduling of those Elseworlds books and equally often I'd pass them up when I did see them because I was young and poor and spending too much on comics as it was. I looked forward to finally catching up on ones I had missed earlier, but it saddens me to report that in many of these cases it seems as though the writers came up with their respective wouldn't-it-be-cool ideas and then considered the job mostly finished. Each one seems to rely on reader affection for the characters as concept-driven properties and never really fleshes out what makes these particular iterations tick, and at the same time each one seems to suffer from needing to tell a complete story with a beginning, middle and end, as the Elseworlds are all supposed to be more or less self-contained, whereas the usual comics writing assignment involves coming into the middle of an ongoing, decades-old, never-ending story. Ah, well.

6. Best playtime development - Dreamblade hand-me-downs. Getting away from grousing for a bit, I will say that I had a moment of pure elation this year when the kids (mostly the boys) discovered my old Dreamblad figurines. I haven't played in years, but it was nice to see the pieces get some love, as the kids used them like bizarro army men to stage elaborate battle scenes. Good times.

This would have been edged out by something else, if it had happened already, but it hasn't. It should go down between Christmas and New Year's. "It" is the triumphant introduction of my kids to playing Dungeons & Dragons. The little guy discovered the sourcebooks and is now crazy about the idea of playing, so on Christmas morning he will be opening all kinds of starter sets and dice towers and books of blank character sheets and all that good stuff. And some time in the long stretch of days where they are not at school and I am not at work, we will roll up some characters and I'll run them through some simple adventures. Supposedly the little girl and the bino are in as well, so we'll see how long it holds their attention. If they bail, I may have to start inviting some of my buddies to show a ten-year-old budding enthusiast the ropes of hack and slash. I am stoked to see how it all plays out.

7. Most gratifying podcast The Good Place: The Podcast. I'm still super into The Good Place on NBC, including the most recent and most divisive season. I also discovered the official companion podcast, which I devoured. Everything about it is so great, from Mike Schur's insights into creativity to the behind-the-scenes details revealed by the writers and actors to the in-world fake ads to the inimitable Marc Evan Jackson (he plays Shawn) as host. Highly recommended.

8. Closest thing to a sea change A farewell to networks. It occurred to me this year that while I am, as just mentioned, still super into The Good Place on NBC, my overall use for the big four networks has seriously declined. If it weren't for sports and Jeopardy (sports for brain-nerds!) I wouldn't have watched ABC or CBS at all this year. I watched Last Man on Earth and LA to Vegas on Fox, but both of those got cancelled (boooo), so again it's pretty much only the NFL and MLB keeping me aware of what number that station is in the program guide. NBC is hanging by a thread, and meanwhile I'm mostly looking forward to stuff on Amazon or Netflix: Stranger Things, Good Omens, Catastrophe, Kimmy Schmidt. Plus of course the go-tos on HBO: Game of Thrones, John Oliver, 2 Dope Queens. This is probably the biggest 'yeah, no duh, you adn everybody else' entry on my list, but hey, it's my list and I thought it was noteworthy, so there you go.

9. Most humbling self-discovery Digging up my old mix-tapes. This was the year that the little guy decided that he values music primarily for its utility as daydream-assisting background noise. Which, fair enough. He and I spent a good amount of time in the car together, because (a) every weekday morning I drop him off at intermediate school on my way to work (note: it's not really on the way, we just both have to leave the house at about the same time. I take him across town to school, then I start my own epic commute) and (b) two weeknights a week I drive him to his martial arts class. These are ten minute drives, usually, and for a while I would turn on the radio when I started the car but that involved a high chance of getting mostly commercials for the duration of the ride, which I am not crazy about and the little guy REALLY hates. So eventually I started loading up the CD changer in the car, which was better, but even at ten minutes a go those 5 CDs would start repeating pretty fast. At one point I realized the car also has a tape deck, and I still have some mix tapes from my teenage years, so I decided to bring those into the lineup.

I have long prided myself as an appreciator of the rock album as a whole greater than the sum of its parts, and as a fairly decent mix tape constructor. Given the breadth of material to choose from in compiling any given mix, it becomes all the more obviously a kind of narrative, establishing and developing certain themes, peaks and valleys and meta-rhythms. Variety is important, but consistency is also important, and smooth segues as well as seemingly incongruous but eventually obvious juxtapositions all have parts to play. So I believe, and so I've always believed, because I have always been a precocious consumer, even as a kid, right?

Eh, maybe not. I started with a mix tape I had made in high school (circa, let's say, 1991) and, oof, it was hard to listen to. The most generous interpretation I could give to that collection of tunes would be that it corresponds to the time when I was still with my longtime high school girlfriend but the cracks in our relationship were beginning to show. This is historically accurate as far as the context goes, and possibly even informs the division between Side A, which was music I liked, and Side B, which was music we (ostensibly) liked. It's hard to say, though, what's the more embarrassing artifact: the inclusion of several "I hope you realize how devoted to you I am before it's too late" numbers, or the preponderance of "this is really popular on top 40 radio and MTV right now so I guess I like it" stuff, including way too many instances of the same band showing up again and again when I thought once-per-mix was a rule I had lived by since the invention of tape-to-tape dubbing. (Was I really that into Genesis's Invisible Touch album when I was in high school? Wow.)

The mix tape I made for no one other than myself the summer after I graduated college (1996) has aged a little better. Certainly it adheres more closely to my ideals of non-repeating bands and organic development of the playlist. The most embarrassing thing about that particular compilation was the discovery, after years of my wife and I laughing whenever a commercial tries to appeal to Gen X'ers' pre-millennium nostalgia by reaching specifically for Send Me On My Way by Rusted Root, the pinnacle of glossy-marketable jam band world music one-hit wonderitude, that sure enough, I had included that very song, presumably unironically, to capture how I was feeling in the transition from college to real(ish) life.

10. Resolution for 2019 More outings to the Crossroads Tabletop Tavern. A very cool establishment opened up in my town this year, and I went once with my wife and kids and some friends of ours and we had a blast. Good menu, great beer selection, and So! Many! Games!

I definitely need to get back there more in the coming year. Possibly to run D&D for my kiddos! Possibly to gather together some of my friends I don't see often enough! Possibly just to support local business! I think that's the kind of resolution that's both worth making and highly achievable.

Monday, November 12, 2018

Excelsior Ad Infinitum

I'd made peace with the fact that this day would come, but it still made me sad when I heard the news. I could go on and on for a thousand words about all the ways Stan Lee's larger-then-life persona did, in fact, loom large for me as a young fan and aspiring storyteller. But the main takeaway was this: he had a voice, a distinctive and inimitable way of expressing himself in printed words that I would argue will be his enduring legacy. Bigger than the ideas he brought forth as a young and hungry creator, bigger than the goofy up-for-whatever grandpa persona he happily inhabited in his elder statesman days, he made his mark as a wordsmith. When you read something penned by Stan the Man, you knew it was penned by none other.


Saturday, September 15, 2018

Social Media Saturday

Usually I don't think these kind of memes work out as well or are as clever as their originators and propagators seem to think, but dangit if "Lorraine Slipped A Disc" doesn't sound like something I would suggest for a band name.

Thursday, September 13, 2018

Watershed Days Revisited

I believe everybody, more or less, has two distinct conceptions of themselves: the self-as-child and the self-as-self. Holding those two separate personhoods in mind allows us to assign certain aspects of our life to 'the folly of youth', which is a useful if not downright necessary coping mechanism, though of course it's not limited to embarrassing indiscretions and attitudes. There can be positive things associated with ourselves-as-children, too, with fond nostalgia or bittersweet regret. It's all part of how we reckon with the passage of time.

And of course it's different for every person, because it's all subjective. The self-as-self doesn't axiomatically begin the day you turn 13, or 18, or 21, or 25, or 30. Some people may have memories of themselves at seven years old which they effectively recollect as 'me, but shorter'. Some people may go through some transformative event in their early 40's which becomes the only before/after line of demarcation in their personal timeline that matters. IDIC.

I'm also clearly oversimplifying things by setting up a binary in the first place, because we all exist along many different multi-faceted axes. When I think, for example, about my general attitude towards eating vegetables in terms of 'when I was a kid' (hated anything green and basically survived on meat and potatoes and Flintstones chewables) and 'as an adult' (eat just about anything, have hot takes on specific preparations of brussels sprouts and cauliflower) that's something that gradually shifted when I went away to college. On the other hand, when I think about my tendency to be a conflict-averse people-pleaser, that's always been true, but it was much more pronounced in my younger days, in this case meaning before I got divorced and picked up the pieces of my life in my mid-to-late 20's.

And then there's the fact that some things never end! I literally cannot remember not being aware of, drawn to, and fascinated by super-heroes. I'm still into them, while fully acknowledging that they are in numerous ways (fairly and unfairly) childish things.

So I'm all over the map. Aren't we all? Here's yet another personal example: pop music. I grew up in a pretty pro-music environment. The radio or the tape player was always in use on long family car trips, and my dad had his old stereo in the garage to crank up on weekends when he was doing yard work or fixit projects, and the newer and nicer stereo in the living room got a fair amount of use as well. We had cable tv and were allowed to watch MTV from day one. Rock and roll was all right, from Buddy Holly and the Beatles right up through the Clash, Van Halen, the Go-Gos, Michael Jackson, ZZ Top, you name it ... but my dad drew the line at heavy metal. He's deeply Catholic, it was the 80s, it was a whole thing. (A whole super weird thing, though, because there I was still going to Sunday school as an adolescent and being warned about the dangers of satanic messages in music, from such acts as Judas Priest and AC/DC and Queen and the Rolling Stones. AC/DC and Queen were 'satanic' for glorifying not just sex but unacceptable unholy perverted bisexuality and homosexuality right there in the names of the bands, which ... is a bit of a stretch particularly in making the case to a pre-sexual tween. The Rolling Stones trafficked in obvious Luciferian imagery from 'Goat Soup' to 'Sympathy for the Devil' to 'Their Satanic Majesties Request' which made much more straightforward sense, but I was also well aware that my dad was a HUGE Rolling Stones fan. But I digress.)

Some time around seventh or eighth grade I was first exposed to Metallica and was immediately hooked. And setting aside what exactly it was about the screaming primal energy of the thrash style or the baroque lyrical imagery that hit me right in the most receptive brainspots at that age and stage of my life, it really always stands out in my mind as a radical act of independence, a true line of demarcation. Before that, I would learn about new bands through my father. He was the gatekeeper who controlled the FM dial in the house or car, or who brought home new vinyl singles from his weekly record store trips. MTV evened the playing field a bit, although it was still most often the case that if I heard something first, when my father caught up on it he would approve. We both liked the same kind of music, which covered a lot of common ground. The suddenly there was this particular subgenre of music, embodied in one particular band, for which I was ALL IN, and my father was DECIDEDLY NOT. To his immense credit, he never really went beyond passive-aggressive shade-throwing. Metallica wasn't banned from our house, I never got grounded or even so much as yelled at for listening to it. My dad made it clear he didn't like it, and wished I didn't like it, but in hindsight I suppose he realized I was old enough to make my own decisions and that trying to control something like musical taste was pointless. So I was left with something which was mine, neither received through my parents nor positively approved of by them, and that was a big deal.

My parents' tolerance for it went so far as to allow me to go to my first concert at age 14 to see Metallica, at a giant arena with a group of maybe a half-dozen other kids from school. I remember that show being a very huge deal to me (and now that I have kids of my own I imagine it was a big deal to my folks, too), the culmination of my newly discovered fandom. After endlessly replaying the Kill 'Em All and Ride the Lightning and Master of Puppets albums through the back half of middle school, the release of ... And Justice For All dropped and was a revelation, and catching the ensuing tour put an auditory exclamation point on it all. I certainly don't think of Metallica as my favorite band now, and I can't say for sure if there was ever a period, even a week, when I would have referred to them as my absolute all-time favorite band back then, but they have this looming liminal personal significance, is what I'm trying to convey. In the diagetic soundtrack of my life, there's all this radio-friendly rock and roll in my childhood, and then there's Kirk Hammett's guitar and Lars Ulrich's drums and James Hetfield's voice kicking in and, boom, I'm just not a kid anymore. Part of that just happens to be the timing, the natural progression from pre-pubescent to post-. But part of it is inherent to the music itself and the blazing bright line it created in my memory.

Significantly, nowadays when people talk about how long ago some pop culture phenomenon was, if it dates back to my childhood the intervening number of years usually doesn't phase me. Star Wars is over forty? Yeah, well, so am I, and Star Wars has always been a part of my life, so that tracks. The first GI Joe cartoon miniseries debuted thirty-five years ago? Again, I can't say that surprises me because I am a grown-ass adult and remember living for GI Joe as a little kid. Lotta water under the bridge since then. But I was driving the little guy to school today and listening to the local classic rock station, and the DJ mentioned the thirtieth anniversary of ... And Justice For All (the exact date of which apparently came and went last month, on August 25th) and I was momentarily stunned. That's not just something that happened a long time ago, but still within my lifetime, but only if you include the life of me-as-a-child to extend the lifetime reach of me-as-myself. That's an event me-as-myself can remember, as clearly as if it were yesterday, and yet was not one or two but three whole decades ago. Sweet satanic majesty I am OLD.

Sunday, April 22, 2018

Earth Days of Future Past

Happy Earth Day! In honor of the green occasion, I'm going to RECYCLE! By which I mean I am going to take a post I made in a Facebook group this week and reproduce it here:

I'm a bourbon drinker, and I went to college in the U.S. south, so I've had my share of mint juleps. I quite enjoy them, honestly. My dad briefly spent time working in London, opening a UK office for his then employer, and I happened to visit him there when his co-workers, all of whom were Englishmen or Scots or Irish, threw a picnic and made sure to have mint juleps in real julep cups because, to them, that was a quintessentially American thing. And that further entrenched the beverage in my heart.

I love all things sci-fi and fantasy and I'm particularly fond of imaginary vegetation, from Ents to Audrey II. It's not for nothing that of all the mythic/folkloric traditions I could have based my Kellan Oakes character on, I gave him a druid background and a dryad receptionist. Tree-people are kind of my jam.


It was one of those revelations where I craved instant feedback gratification, hence turning it into a Facebook post. And sure enough, other members of the group were quick to assure me that, oh yes, the Killraven series was a hidden gem with loads of wild supporting characters and I should definitely track it down and read it, and once I did I was in for a treat, and so forth.

I really wish I could remember the exact sequence of events that got me there, but basically I was just messing around on teh interwebs and found myself on the Wikipedia page for Killraven, which is where I made the quite accidental discovery of the character above. I think it was something like going through my usual daily comics blog consumption, wherein one writer made an offhand reference to Logan's Run, which at one point was adapted as a comic book, which got me thinking about other 1970's science fiction comics which might be ripe for a reboot, which led me down the wormhole to Killraven, a series I've always been peripherally aware of (it was a bit before my time, and back in the day if comics were before your time they had likely vanished into inaccessibility by the time you tried to hunt them down) but had never read. Hence the capacity for surprise and wonder upon digging into its details.

So here's the interesting thing about Killraven: he was an original character who debuted in the Marvel-published Amazing Adventures comics, in May of 1973. But he was created as the protagonist of a kind of loose sequel to The War of the Worlds. I say loose because the premise for the comic series is that the H.G. Wells novel ended quite differently, and the Martians successfully conquered Earth. The human race is totally subjugated, Killraven himself is a former gladiator turned freedom fighter, about a hundred years after the source material was set. Between the alternate outcome of the backstory and the future setting, numerous other embellishments ensued, but it was very much intended to be Wells's aliens as the bad guys, including prominent use of the iconic imagery of giant mechanical tripods shooting death rays. Which, honestly, is pretty shrewd considering that the Martian tripods are (1) so famous that they have evocative power with near total cultural awareness saturation, regardless of whether or not a person has read the novel, and (2) totally rad looking. So it's a real best-of-breed approach, combining a recognizable IP touchstone (which just happens to be free and clear in the public domain) with something fresh and imaginative.

It's interesting to me because I spend a lot of time thinking about the creative process as both pure art and a commercial enterprise, trying to understand both sides of the equation. I'm well aware of general sentiments along the lines of there being no new ideas these days. Everything is a reboot, or a continuation of an existing megafranchise. And on the one hand, if someone were to make a KILLRAVEN movie, how would you classify it along those lines? Would it be part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, since its origins go back to that publisher? (Killraven did meet Spider-Man at one point, but that involved some interdimensional time travel shenanigans, because clearly Martians did not conquer the Earth Spider-Man calls home in 1897. This is not a dealbreaker, though. The MCU Doctor Strange movie also introduced at least the concept of interdimensional time travel shenanigans.) Or would it be considered part of the overall War of the Worlds franchise, however you might define the parameters of such a creative entity? You'd be hard pressed to convince me that it should be considered a reboot, since it's one of the few War of the Worlds stories that doesn't take the events of the novel and transpose them to a different setting in time and place. A spin-off, then? Well, the comics were a spin-off of the novel. The movie adaptation would probably change some things (I've said this before, it's basically mandatory that you change source material when moving into a different medium) to make it more resonant to modern audiences.

And there's the additional point I wanted to make: sometimes the blanket dismissal of all current entertainments as nothing but reboots and sequels seems to indict adaptations as well, but that's certainly not a new phenomenon by any stretch. War of the Worlds was written in the nineteenth century and turned into a radio drama in 1938. Hollywood has been putting books on film for movies' entire existence. Shoot, Shakespeare was riffing on old stories everyone knew, and Homer was formalizing oral history. Killraven, with its weird remix of elements from a Victorian invasion novel and later sci-fi dystopian ideas and comic book tropes, came out almost half a decade before Star Wars ushered in the modern Death of Originality, or however it's supposed to work. So, if someone were in fact to option Killraven as movie material, I would not find it distressing or indicative of a general dearth of imagination in current entertainment. I would consider it part of a long and glorious tradition, albeit a weird obscure outlier part, and I'd be grateful to live in a time where those kinds of things could have a $100MM budget tossed their way. I can dream.

Anyway, as you may or may not have noticed in the artwork up above, there's a reference to the year 2015 in Mint Julep's backstory. According to Wikipedia, the adventures of Killraven as depicted in the 70's comics were supposed to take place during the impossibly far-off years of 2018 to 2020. What was future to the various Marvel bullpen talents who brought Killraven into being is rapidly becoming the past. Marvel is of course also the home of the X-Men, the mutant superheroes who battled their destinies in a classic storyline entitled "Days of Future Past" which became both a recurring reference in the X-comics and also the subtitle of a film adaptation in 2014. The fact that I was able to combine a mainstream Marvel reference with today's holiday to set up a relevant discussion of a far more obscure Marvel comics vegetable transhuman character pretty much makes the title of this post one of my bar-none proudest blogging moments EVAR.