Thursday, July 31, 2014

All in the telling

One of the things my kids are going to have to learn to deal with as best they can is the fact that while I may be one of the top two best connections they will have with their own past, and the earliest days of their lives when permanent memories lacked the capacity to be formed, my own memory is notoriously unreliable. There's a relatively consistent reason for this, which fits right into my entire mental orientation towards storytelling. Some things fit that pattern, and some things don't. If it fits, I stand a much better chance of remembering it than if I don't.

That's pretty straightforward, and it's been true for as long as I can remember. Lucky for me, the vast majority of my public school teachers took the narrative approach to instruction, making things into a story whether it was the sequence of events that led to the Articles of Confederation or how to pronounce words with silent E's. That along with my voracious appetite for reading made school pretty easy on me. The things I struggled with were the really abstract concepts that called for rote memorization with little to no anthropomorphic metaphoric content; to this day, despite taking a year of AP Biology, I don't quite understand how the Krebs Cycle works.

But there's a slightly more insidious side to this whole arrangement, above and beyond the binary yes/no of remembering things. Sometimes I simply won't have any recollection of facts or events, but other times I will be convinced that I do remember them, although my memories are demonstrably false. And the fault usually comes down to the elements of a good story. If things happened one way, but it would have been a better tale if they happened another way, my brain will convince itself that events unfolded in the more narratively satisfying fashion. This trips me up. All. The. Time.

Like, seriously, I've gotten into fights with friends over the stupidest things, like who delivered a particularly devastating zinger at the perfect moment. I start out with a rock solid conviction that I'm the witty one, the hero of the anecdote, and then the whole thing comes into serious doubt as my friend insists I'm misremembering.

All of which to say, as I'm sure I've said before, take everything I say with a grain of salt. I'm not a malicious pathological liar, I just love a good story and my powers of recall fall victim to that with alarming frequency. I kind of caught myself in mid-process of overwriting my own memories the other day, as I was thinking about the bino and how he is presently poised on the cusp of vocalizing actual words. One of my duties as a parent, as widely acknowledged, is to remember for posterity the bino's real-and-true first word. Inevitably I am going to tell people that his first word was "go". It's funny, because for a lot of toddlers their first word is "no" motivated primarily by how often they hear it, but our bino has an advanced case of Third Child Syndrome, a combination of severe slackening of the rules my wife and I once vigilantly upheld for his bigger brother and sister, and a tendency to have things done for him or to him without explanation, all because at this point we're too damn exhausted to raise him any other way. He doesn't find himself being told "no" a whole lot. But he hears "let's go" a lot, not even necessarily directed at him but flowing from his parents to his siblings, as we try to appeal to their rational self-sufficiency and motivate them towards the goal of the moment. The bino also hears the little guy and little girl saying "let's go" to one another, usually in the form of "let's go to one of our bedrooms and close the door so the baby won't bother us and mess up our game." The bino so desperately wants to be one of the big kids, to participate in their activities, just to be able to keep up with them as they run. He wants to go, go, go. And thus if you pick him up these days, he's highly likely to point in the direction he wants to be carried and give the command: "GO!"

Great story, right? Not entirely accurate, though. The truth is the bino's been saying "mama" for a while, which is another extremely common first word. He also has his own way of saying "milk" when he wants some, which comes out sounding like "muhLUH-muhLUH" but is nevertheless recognizable as his distinct reference to the beverage. But those are kind of boring and don't elevate his overarching storyline as the youngest child. And if I hadn't written them down here, soon enough they'd be lost to the mists of legend. Sorry kids, I'm an unrepentant unreliable narrator. If you really want to know how things were back in the beginning, go ask your mother.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

SMOAT Double-Features #4!!! (Rise of the Planet of the Apes/Sunshine)

It's the end of the world again (and again) as another pair of movies get their turn to fill out the double bill of Summer Movies on a Train: 2011's Rise of the Planet of the Apes and 2007's Sunshine.

There are a couple of different reasons why a person might want to make a movie like Rise of the Planet of the Apes, which overlap pretty closely with reasons why a person might want to watch such a movie. Set aside all the considerations of mining the nostalgia value and built in fanbase of a beloved old property via the ubiquitous reboot, along with the economic appeal of launching a new franchise to flog to death (for now, at least, though we will come back to franchise-launching later). Purely in terms of the creation or consumption of a story, here are the Big Draws:

1. To examine weighty ideas via allegory, from the safe distance of separation between our real world and the imaginary near-future or alternate world of the story's setting

2. The Promise of the Premise

And in all honesty, this applies to just about every science fiction story, movie, novel, whathaveyou that's out there. For Rise of the Planet of the Apes in particular, there are numerous thought-provoking concepts that could be explored given the subject matter: scientific and corporate ethics, responsibility to society versus responsibility to family, animal rights, the list goes on and on. These points could, theoretically, be raised but never settled, resolved definitively or ambiguously, form the basis of a preachy parable or a sobering cautionary tale - a lot of it comes down to execution. But it's a valid reason to justify the existence of the movie, to those who created it and those who paid good money to see it.

The Promise of the Premise is a term screenwriters and film critics tend to bandy about which I've latched onto, and it refers to some visceral aspect of the high concept of the piece which could, again theoretically, make sitting through the entire film worthwhile. If a movie were about an antagonistic alien fleet on its way to Earth to conquer or destroy humanity, and the race on earth to build our own space fleet to defend ourselves, the Promise of the Premise is that at some point there will be mind-blowing scenes of Earth spaceships and alien spaceships whizzing around in outer space blowing each other up with laser cannons. It is of course possible to construct a story that subverts its own premise, but the caveat for writers is that such a subversion essentially constitutes a broken promise so it had better be done right or not at all.

Clearly for Rise of the Planet of the Apes the Promise of the Premise is that the chimps will band together, escape their confines, and start down the path of overthrowing human society, with a certain amount of physical violence. It is, I would argue, equally valid to go into Planet of the Apes excited to see a barehanded but pissed-off gorilla take down a police helicopter because that is an inherently awesome spectacle, regardless of what points are made before and after that sequence about who really deserves to inherit the earth and whatnot.

Indeed, notwithstanding that a lot of it was given away by the various trailers and commercials for the movie, the big payoff scene where a small army of chimps, orangutans and gorillas do battle with a bunch of cops (and one evil pharmaceutical exec) on the Golden Gate Bridge is a pretty successful piece of action film-making. Premise = fulfilled.

Unfortunately, the symphony of ideas that Rise attempts to orchestrate is a bit of a cacophonous mess. Concepts aren't so much left intentionally ambiguous as abruptly abandoned or outright doubled back on and contradicted as per the dictates of the plot, such as it is. There's a scientist character (James Franco) who is gung ho about testing his new wonder drug (actually a neuro-retrovirus, I think) on human beings because of one successful trial on a chimp. The reason for this is because he's desperate to cure his father's Alzheimer's. His hubris, of course, will lead to his project being shut down, which backs him into the corner of adopting a baby chimp that inherited the wonder drug's effects in utero. By raising and teaching the wonder-chimp, Caesar, the scientist inadvertently creates the future leader of the ape uprising. But meanwhile he continues to do research and cures his father's Alzheimer's, which gives his former bosses the idea to re-open the project. But of course the cure is only temporary, and after the father dies, suddenly Franco is adamantly against the project and any testing on chimps or humans, which is not very inconsistent. Accurate, perhaps, as far as human nature goes, but it makes for a fairly unsatisfying story when the main (human) character is primarily defined by his selfishness, and doesn't have much of an arc to speak of: selfish in Act I, selfish in Act III, just selfish towards different ends depending on whether the movie needs him to be maneuvering Caesar into place as primate revolutionary, or needs him to be opposing The Man as embodied by greedy corporate bigwigs and sadistic animal control employees. Yes, seriously.

The little bit of character development Franco gets is at the very end of the movie, when instead of demanding that Caesar come home with him to be his weird intelligent pet locked up for his own safety, Franco allows Caesar to stay in the Redwoods with the other escaped intelligence-boosted apes, where the chimp can be free. I guess? It kind of falls apart the second you start to think about it: this massive troop of clearly aggressive apes has just run pellmell through the streets of San Francisco, killing several police officers before escaping across the bridge and into the Redwoods. Despite being the biggest threat to public safety northern California has seen in, maybe, EVER, the only person who follows the apes across the bridge is Franco. And then he wishes them well and takes off, as if everyone else is just going to let them be. Super-strong, hyper-intelligent wild animals hanging out in a national park? Sure, we're cool with that. The movie ends with all the apes climbing up the sequoia trees as triumphant music swells, and then they look out across the bay at the city. All the cues are there for a feelgood ending, the misfit outcasts having finally found a place of their own, a sanctuary in this crazy world ...

Which gets us back to franchise-launching. There's a subplot in Rise about how the retrovirus boosts ape intelligence but is fatal to humans. It infects one of Franco's scientist colleagues, who passes it along to Franco's jerk neighbor when he comes looking for Franco. Jerk Neighbor happens to be an airline pilot, and the movie really ends with the jokey coda implying that Jerk Nieghbor still goes to work despite sneezing blood due to picking up the virus, and he's going to be a vector for the plague that will wipe out most of humanity and allow the apes to not just co-exist but take over. Of course, one of the prompts for me watching Rise was the fact that Dawn of the Planet of the Apes came out this summer, and I felt like it was time to start catching up, and Dawn does in fact pick up well into the plague years with humanity barely hanging on. So really, it's little wonder that Rise is kind of a hodge-podge that doesn't necessarily hang together that well; it's really just a teaser setting the stage for future installments that will push further and further away from reality. It remains to be seen (for me, at least) if it was worth it.

Sunshine, on the other hand, is an intentionally standalone movie, which is somewhat refreshing in this day and age of serial adaptations ad nauseum. (It's seven years old, and maybe couldn't even get made today, but regardless.) Unlike Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Sunshine doesn't get bogged down in pseudo-scientific jargon trying to explain the elements that put the "fiction" in its sci-fi. It's honestly a fairly ridiculous set-up: our sun is dying, and seven astronaut-scientists (solarnauts?) are on a dangerous mission to fix it. Right off the bat it's bad astronomy, because rather than the sun slowly expanding and roasting planet Earth to a cinder, as experts anticipate will happen in a billion years or so long after we're dead and gone, the sun in Sunshine is just running down, getting cooler and threatening to leave Earth a frozen wasteland, and it's all happening in the near future when human society is basically the same as we know it now. Crazy talk.

All is forgiven, though, because the whole movie is just one big metaphor (stop me if you've heard this one before) for life. A unfolding suicide mission to re-ignite the sun might seem like a depressing way to spend an hour and a half, but it simply exaggerates the fundamental questions of the human experience: if we now we're going to die some day (and deep down, we do, or we should) then what can we do to make the time that we're given meaningful? And every single plot twist and piece of dialogue in Sunshine finds different ways to comment on, or attempt to partially answer, that question. The movie slowly ratchets up the tension and the threats until it winds up in completely insane territory, with the last surviving physicist fighting against a monster (SPOILER: an astronaut from an earlier doomed mission who has absorbed so much solar radiation he is insane and emits his own distortion fields) to buy enough time to detonate The Payload, which contains every last scrap of fissile material Earth had in order to create a "miniature Big Bang" inside the sun, assuming the calculations of scientists back home are correct, which can't be guaranteed because the relativistic effects of the sun's gravity throw everything into doubt. But by the time the movie reaches that point of no return, it's already made it very clear that this is a struggle we all face: mortality, uncertainty, the temptation to succumb to nihilism, and so on. And ultimately it conveys a message of hope.

Plus, it's particularly freaking gorgeous. I'm starting to think Danny Boyle may be criminally underrated as a director. Between Sunshine and Trainspotting, he's been able to use his own stylized approach to cinematic imagery to convince me, however briefly, that I know how it feels to shoot (or go through withdrawal from) heroin, and to fly into the surface of a star. That's no small feat in my book.

So, what have we learned? Selfishness is bad, a life worth living is going to entail a certain amount of sacrifice for the greater good. And gorillas will always be awesome.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Backstory bait and switch

I’m looking forward to the biannual beach vacation, which is now less than three weeks away, for a variety of reasons, and one such aspect is the opportunity to return once again to the Worldwar series by Harry Turtledove, which I have mentioned before is a sci-fi alternate military history series which I reserve exclusively for beach reading. A couple years ago, around the time I read the second book in the four-volume saga, I joked that it would be quite the horserace for me between finishing Worldwar, given my self-imposed beach-only rule, and finishing George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire (aka the game of Thrones books) which I’d make time to read at the drop of a hardcover but is entirely dependent on Martin actually finishing writing the final few volumes. Now here we are, mere days away from beach week, with my copy of Worldwar volume three sitting on a shelf waiting to be toted shoreward, and we’re definitely done having babies so who knows, we might swing back from every-other-year at the beach to once a summer, which means I could very well finish reading all of Worldwar by the end of August 2015. Whereas at this moment, Martin has not released any more of Song of Ice and Fire than he had last time I brought this all up. Plus, rumors have begun to fly and multiply since Game of Thrones the tv series has become a runaway monster hit, everything from Martin sharing the big climactic ending of his overarching story with the showrunners, so that they can finish the necessary future episodes even if Martin never finishes the books, to Martin hinting that well, maybe, the way the story’s evolving in his head, it won’t be seven books after all, and it could be eight, or more! So it’s no longer even money; finishing Turtledove first is definitely the odds-on favorite.

Of course it’s technically inaccurate to say that Martin has written nothing whatsoever related to Song of Ice and Fire in the past two years. I recently got hold of and started reading Rogues, which is an anthology of short stories written by various big names in modern genre fiction, all revolving around the common theme of main characters that fit into the trickster/thief archetype. One of the big selling points for the collection (both in terms of obvious marketing strategy and for me personally) is the fact that George R.R. Martin is both an editor of the book and a contributor to its contents, supplying the final story, one which relates directly to Song of Ice and Fire. Right now, I have read all five of the novels Martin has put out, and I’m up to speed on the first three out of four seasons of the tv series, as I wait for the release date for season four on Blu-ray to be announced (already pre-ordered, of course) and remain on the lookout for whispers about a potential publication date for book six. A short story isn’t much, but it’s a nice little bonus when the pickings for feeding the addiction are otherwise slim to none.

Except, and forgive the malodorous whiff of entitlement here, but it’s not a great story. It’s not even really a story at all, I would argue. What Martin has done in Rogues is provided a bit of backstory to his magnum opus, explaining certain sequences of events that factor into the historical backdrop of his imaginary world of Westeros. He does this in the form of an excerpt from a scholarly tome on the Targaryens, the dynastic rulers who were overthrown fifteen or twenty years before Game of Thrones properly begins. The excerpt covers events from generations before the downfall of the Targaryens. And it does so in exactly the dry, objective, unemotional and uneditorialized fashion you would expect from a scholarly tome. There’s a hint of a framing device in the sense that the excerpt is written by a Maester of the Citadel, and that organization continues to play a part in Song of Ice and Fire as it unfolds. But by and large it is a recitation of facts, with acknowledgments throughout that some of the facts are in dispute because they could only be known to individuals who witnessed things behind closed doors which could never be verified.

The story has no point of view, and no emotional arc. In theory it belongs in a book called Rogues because it is about the schism that developed between a king and his brother the prince, with said younger brother becoming a bit of a wastrel over time because he was neither the head of state nor directly in the line of succession. But there’s not enough narrative meat in the exercise to bear comparisons to other great roguish characters like Robin Hood or Han Solo. I understand, in the grand scheme of things, how Martin needs to save most if not all of the good stuff for the main Song of Ice and Fire novels that are his livelihood. And part of the appeal of the saga is that it constantly has the freedom to recast past events in a new light, because it all takes place in a world where literacy is low and hearsay runs rampant, and the most sacred truths held up as historical fact are always subject to reinterpretation. To provide a first-hand account of events hundreds of years before the main story would be too definitive, too restrictive for the remainder of the epic. Fair enough, I suppose, but Martin has also shown a talent for telling stories from the perspective of the lowborn commoners, who travel along their own arcs even as the great and powerful play out their dramatics over their heads. A story like that, about the time of old dragon kings, I think I would have rather enjoyed. But a pseudo-official document which reads more like a summary of plot points than a tale worth telling? That’s a letdown.

So far I’ve only read four of the stories in the book: Martin’s, one by Joe Abercrombie that’s a hilarious Rube Goldberg device of a story about a maguffin being stolen and re-stolen over the course of a single night, one by Gillian Flynn about a con woman who works as a modern-day fortune teller, and one by Patrick Rothfuss about the fae character Bast from his Kingkiller Chronicles series (another trilogy I’m caught up on and impatiently awaiting the publication of the final installment). The Rothfuss story did not disappoint at all, which is good because that was the other half of the reason I bought the whole anthology, and the Abercrombie and Flynn made me want to read more by each of them (Flynn’s Gone Girl was already on my list for this year, and now I’m looking forward to it all the more). I skipped to the end to get to Rothfuss and Martin, and although there’s no doubt in my mind that I’ll go back and read all the other stories from the middle of the book eventually, it’s still a little odd to go 1-for-2 on the big draws.

And then there’s the conundrum of Dangerous Women, which is another anthology edited and contributed to by Martin, released back in December of last year. In this case, what Martin brings to the book is a much longer piece, a novella that also happens to be set well before the events of Game of Thrones and its sequels. That sounds like a better bet for entertainment value than what I just got out of Rogues from Martin, but I’m proverbially twice-shy. Of course, yet again, it’s a collection and there would be other stories by other authors to make it worthwhile even if Martin whiffed again: a Harry Dresden story by Jim Butcher (yet another series I’m perpetually in the middle of, since it’s about fifteen novels and numerous short stories along and counting); an Outlander story by Diana Gabaldon (I seriously have no idea what this is, except that it keeps showing up in my Facebook feed because apparently a lot of my friends are huge fans and totally geeked about the fact that it’s being adapted as, I think, a Starz tv series); Lev Grossman (who I keep meaning to get into); more Abercrombie; &c. &c. Oh, who am I kidding, of course I’ll end up acquiring this one, too. I’m not made of stone, people. In fact sometimes I might as well be made of woodpulp.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Tipple time

Finally, the weekend is almost upon us, which is cause for celebration. Perhaps the finest fermented caper liqueur of Isla Verde?

My wife and I are both fans of The Simpsons as a concept, though we rarely make time to watch the show much anymore. But we did semi-recently find ourselves with idle weekend evening time, and ran across a rerun which probably would have struck both of us as pretty good (especially amidst the relative decline of the series over time). A storyline about art snobbery and art forgery, with special guest voice Max von Sydow, hits a lot of buttons between the two of us. But the whole Strupo tangent just slayed us. If someone produced this, even as an empty bottle prop, I would without question have to obtain it for my home bar.

Enjoy your own weekend as you see fit, but remember: please drink ...






... responsibly.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

SMOAT Double-Features #3!!! (Machete Kills/Monsters)

For this week's double-feature we jump forward from the era of my birth to the (approximate) present day, with 2013's Machete Kills and 2010's Monsters. Technically neither of them is a Summer Movie, since both were released in October, but they both have the feel of classic dog-days drive-ins to them, grindhouse and creature features and whatnot. Go ahead and Google "summer blockbuster is dead" for further evidence as to whether or not release date means all that much anymore. (Spoiler: it doesn't. Also, spoilers ahead!)

Machete Kills is of course the sequel to Robert Rodriguez's Machete, which was a flick I watched as part of last year's SMOAT, an experience which made my end-of-year superlatives list and which had me very eager for the continuation. Unfortunately, I must admit that Machete Kills was somewhat disappointing as a follow-up. In and of itself, on its own (dubious) merits, I probably would have liked it a bit more. But it definitely suffers in comparison to the original.

Machete is a fairly ridiculous movie, and Machete Kills is an egregiously ridiculous movie. Both feature copious amounts of bloodletting but somehow Machete manages to maintain a tenuous connection to reality, which makes the enhanced hyperviolence pop in spite of how unreal (or surreal) it all is. Machete Kills abandons anything remotely associated with realism, leaving behind the grit of cop-on-a-vengeance-trip thrillers referenced in the first movie and jumping headfirst into borrowing tropes at will from super-spy and science fiction traditions. Master-of-disguise characters literally portrayed by multiple actors (and an actress), clone characters, psychic characters, and futuristic technology galore all piling up on-screen to create an utter fantasy world where the violence feels somehow less visceral, more Looney Tunes. Lest I be accused of being a cranky scold, I will say I get it - Rodriguez is having fun, making a big-budget movie as if he were a kid playing make-believe in the backyard, doing Star Wars pastiche simply because it's a blast. And there's an arguably humorous meta-joke inherent in taking the scowling no-guff-taking character of Machete and putting him through the paces of a story that gets more and more impossible and insane as it goes along. I grok all of that, I really do. But, again, Machete kept itself under control and its intermittent bursts of madness were exhilarating. Machete Kills is like watching a ten-year-old totally spaz out: amusing here and there, but very wearying after a while.

If there is ever a third Machete movie, will I spare a couple of commuting hours to see it? Most def. "Not as good as the original" isn't the same as "bad", and my obsessive completism makes me more tolerant than most of diminishing returns. Besides, with my expectations appropriately adjusted, I might enjoy Machete Kills Again ... In Space that much more.

I will say this about one stellar turn in Machete Kills: the stunt casting of Charlie Sheen (aka Carlos Estevez) as President Rathcock pays off big time. I'm about as sick as anyone at this point of Sheen's antics and attitude towards fame, his industry, and the world he considers himself so exalted above. BUT. In the initial scene in which Machete meets the President, Charlie kills it. And "it" is a dead-on perfect impression of his father, Martin Sheen, specifically as he embodied President Jed Bartlett on the West Wing. The Sorkinesque cadence, the world-weary gravel in his elder statesman throat, everything, so on-point I wanted to stand up and applaud. I never would have guessed there would be a big overlap between Machete franchise fans and a network political drama that was in its heyday over a decade ago, but I learn something new every day. If Rodriguez just went for the homage because, like everything else in the flick, it simply amused him to do so, then this is one example of the tendency I can totally get behind.

Moving on ... Monsters was recommended to me by an old college buddy of mine, whom I saw in New York a couple months ago, meeting up for beers after my wife and I caught the Hedwig show. We talked a little bit about this summer's Godzilla reboot, which my friend found disappointing, mainly because he had expected so much more out of Gareth Edwards based on Monsters. I admitted that while Monsters looked/sounded interesting, I hadn't seen it yet. My friend urged me to catch up with it soon, and so I did.

And I agree that Monsters is a charming, fascinating movie, one that straddles the line between sci-fi special effects and human drama, coming down far more frequently on the latter side (as you might expect from a no-budget indie film). The titular extraterrestrials are extremely interesting, visually, but Edwards wisely shows very little of them early on, doling out more and more clear shots until the biggest reveals in the final moments of the film. Mostly the aliens are simply part of the backdrop, shading around the edges of a story about what regular people do when their backs are against the wall, and how they come to realize what is most important to them.

The story is set mostly in Mexico, which is not an accident at all, and the movie aims to raise a certain awareness in the audience about issues associated with immigration, the policies enacted to control it and the real fallout and consequences of those programs. Anyone hoping for a straightforward us-against-the-xenotypes shoot-em-up is bound to come away disappointed. In fact, I'd posit that the strangely beautiful ending sequence is intended to challenge the very desire to see such stories play out at all. So it's an impressively sharp-looking movie for being shot on a wing and a prayer, and thought-provoking to boot, which is no small feat. Clearly, though, those virtues are the exact opposite of what big-studio producers would want to wring out of a brand spanking new Godzilla flick, so it's little surprise that very little of Edwards' special, deft touches made it into the most recent would be King of the Monster Movies. I'm honestly not sure how my friend could have expected it to be otherwise.

COMING ATTRACTIONS: Next week, more 21st-century sci-fi!

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Don't want to be a richer man (The Magnificent Ambersons)

It's 1001 Movies Blog Club time! And yet again, it’s all my fault, as it was my turn to pick and I reached way back for Orson Welles’ 1942 adaptation of Booth Tarkington’s novel, The Magnificent Ambersons.

Never let it be said that Welles was not a gifted filmmaker. It’s almost a shame that many people no doubt think of either “War of the Worlds” or “Rosebud” when they hear his name, and not much more. But the man really knew how to make the most of the possibilities inherent in the motion picture artform, which is all the more impressive considering that he entered the field in its earliest era, with very few others illuminating the way ahead for him. There are technical elements of The Magnificent Ambersons which are extremely striking: long, unbroken tracking shots, mood-evoking lighting that ranges from bright outdoor sunlight on a city street in the morning to the shadows of a kitchen late at night. And there are also more subtle elements which lend a novelistic feeling to the film, such as the fades to and from scenes of the townspeople of Indianapolis talking about the Ambersons, breaking up the chapters of the movie and creating the feeling of depth and background that a novel usually provides. The Magnificent Ambersons could fairly be held up as an example to be followed, or at the very least referenced, for adapting prose to the screen.

And yet … the story itself which Welles took the time to adapt was, I must admit, not my cup of tea. Tales of the declining fortunes of once prosperous aristocratic families do little if anything for me. I find it hard to summon up much sympathy, empathy, or anything else positive for characters who grew up privileged due to what was handed down to them, and suddenly find that either the world is changing around them in ways which do not enrich them, or that they have become impoverished by either their own active incompetence or passive indifference. I also find it hard to become emotionally invested in love stories in which two characters pine for one another and yet are kept forever apart due to artificial constructs such as societal expectations and the like. The Magnificent Ambersons is a double-barreled shot of both of those types of stories, and in its own way, it seems self-aware of it. Arguably the narrative spine consists of the origins, rise, and completely telegraphed comeuppance of George Amberson Minafer, and George is highly unlikable, not because Welles (or Tarkington, for that matter) tried and failed to make him the hero, but because that’s the point of his character, to represent and embody the worst traits of entitlement and arrogance. Watching and waiting for his comeuppance is like sitting through a largely incident-free revenge movie wrapped in turn-of-the-previous-century manners. As I say, not my cup of tea.

And (as Neil Gaiman once said of the ill-advised revisions to Shakespeare which flourished in the late 18th C.) the idiots have given it a happy ending. George contributes to and causes most if not all of his own ruin, but is ultimately forgiven and loved. His family fortune is gone, but it belonged to another world which, by the end of the elegiac film, is gone as well. And that may be the most fascinating aspect of The Magnificent Ambersons, from my point of view: a novel written in 1918 about the 1890’s and 1900’s had a certain amount of perspective through which to view the era of the setting, and a movie based on the novel filmed in 1941 added its own perspective, and watching that movie in 2014 layers on even more perspective still. It makes the movie as a historical artifact an intriguing multi-faceted time capsule, however a mixed bag the movie as a pure work of art might be.

Monday, July 21, 2014


As of late last week, one of the major things I'm dealing with at work is the fact that one of the servers utilized by one of our applications has been taken offline. I wasn't consulted whenever the server was under consideration for decommissioning, nor was I properly informed when it actually happened. I just tried to use the application one day and realized it wasn't behaving exactly as it should, and I started poking around and troubleshooting, and eventually got to the point where I had exhausted all of my own (limited by design) options and had to call the helpdesk. Usually these calls result in someone rebooting the troublesome server, which takes care of things. Surely I could reboot the server myself, if that's all it takes? Yes, except that I'm expressly forbidden from doing that, and I have neither the physical nor virtual access to even attempt to circumvent that protocol in any case. This is life as a contractor fulfilling a vaguely technical role that piggy-backs on the DoD's existing technical infrastructure: many responsibilities, no authorization.

This time, instead of being notified that the server had been rebooted, I was informed that the server was gone, which was a bit of a shock. And thus I have entered a protracted round of exchanging information with a helpdesk representative who is authorized to track down the old server and migrate the data from it that I need to some new server, and then re-establish the proper connections my application would need with the new server, &c. &c. and again it's all stuff I could do and get done quickly by giving it my full and undivided attention, but that's not the way it works.

The extra layer of frustration for me in this scenario is that the helpdesk person has a lot of questions which I feel all boil down to the person saying to me "tell me how to do my job". I've been working this contract for just about five years now, so I learned the ropes of the applications long ago. But apparently the helpdesk has much higher turnover, so the people I learned the ropes from are long gone and now new people have taken their place, new people with no idea how my applications were set up or why they were set up that way. I've already had at least one conversation that started to stumble down that path and I had to politely yet emphatically remind the person I was talking to that I am forbidden to do anything or even know too much about how the servers are configured, and if I was told five years ago I would be using servers X, Y, and 37, and at the time I said "thanks very much" because everything worked as needed at that point, it's not exactly fair to demand that I explain the why's and wherefore's of how part of my application ended up on server 37. I wasn't told and I didn't ask. I understand if it's part of the reason why I'm in the non-functioning predicament I'm in now, but it's not as though I specifically requested that arrangement. You may have a very valid point, helpdesk person, that your predecessor never should have set things up that way, but said point validity in no way implicates me. I don't care how or why it got set up badly/lazily the first time, and I trust you to set it up better this time (not that i have any choice but to trust you) but instead of dwelling on the past let's go ahead and put things right going forward so I can get back to using my applications as normal, all right?

Every time I go through an upgrade or migration or generalized system failure like this, I tell myself that I'm going to first survive it, then turn all the questions around on the helpdesk tech after the fact, particularly the ones they raised which I wasn't able to answer due to my own enforced ignorance, and I'm going to document everything so that the next time it happens it will be that much easier to turn the entire knowledge base over to whomever is manning the helpdesk at that point somewhere down the road. I tell myself this, and yet I never quite manage to follow through on it. Well, maybe this time.