"Just kidding. We're vegetarians."
Earlier this week I was picking up the kids from daycare and I noticed a birth announcement hung in the window of one of the classrooms. Specifically, it belonged to what I over the past nine years or so have come to recognize as the sub-category of "daycare birth announcement" where it's not an actual glossy photo printed on cardstock and suitable to mail to grandparents and be subsequently hung on the fridge for all to admire. Rather, it's a snapshot of the newborn blown up and photocopied in black and white with some handwritten details added on top. Which is fine! I have no beef whatsoever with this practice, which seems both practical, effort-efficient and appropriate for the care provider setting.
This announcement had two messages scrawled on either side of the grayscaled, very babyish-looking baby. On one side it read "Congratulations Jones Family!". I will pause here to note that, in the interest of preserving privacy (not to mention the fact that I legit do not remember the family surname because that's really not the point of this story), 'Jones' was not really the middle word. However, this next part is, I swear, faithfully reproduced verbatim: "Welcome Baby Hughie!"
Not a thing in the world wrong with the name Hugh. Nothing particularly bad about indulging in the diminutive version Hughie, especially in reference to a newborn. And certainly I've been known to refer to infants (and, to be honest, all the way through toddlerhood) as Baby So-and-so. But put them all together ...
I mean, did they not hear it in their head?
Or did they just not know this was a thing?
Maybe they just didn't know it was a thing. Cultural literacy is a precious and rapidly vanishing commodity.
It's that time again! Time to dust off the blog (or, y'know, excavate it from beneath a cyber-caul of trillion billion fading electrons ... a measly three posts this year and nothing since September? Yeesh.) and talk about 2017: The Year What Was In Pop Culture Experiences! The Decembrion reference goes back to 2013, so if you want to get a sense of how these things usually go you can check out parts one and two from that year, parts one and two from 2014, or the somewhat condensed versions from 2015 and 2016.
Now, without further ado, the Top Ten!
1. Eeriest movie theater experience IT. I went to see Andy Muschietti's film adaptation of Stephen King's IT on opening weekend, so I guess I was part of the overall phenomenon of the highest-grossing horror film of all time? That wasn't what made it particularly eerie, though. I feel like I should establish at the outset that I enjoyed the movie a lot and am looking forward to Chapter Two in 2019. But the feeling of anticipation for the movie, particularly during the final moments sitting in the theater waiting for the show to start, was deeply strange.
Part of that was because, while I do go to the movies more often now than I did when, say, I had babies with erratic sleep schedules living in my house, we are living in a golden age of superhero movies and thus even a half-dozen trips to the multiplex can be, and generally are, wall-to-wall four color comics stuff. (Fair warning: a LOT of items on this retrospective countdown tie into superheroes one way or another.) But more to the point, despite the fact that I continue to and presumably will always identify as a horror fan, it had been an exceedingly long time since I had watched a new-to-me horror movie. So I felt a lot of the same not-entirely-pleasant jitters that I've sometimes felt when I get on a rollercoaster for the first time in a long time: wondering if I actually am about to enjoy the experience, or if it's going to be terror and misery from end to end. Do I like the abstract idea of horror more than I enjoy the rite of parturition of subjecting myself to any given horror gauntlet, especially now that I'm a weary old man instead of a boundary-pushing, thrill-seeking, bullet-proof teenager? And then the movie started, and I went along for the ride, and I gradually realized that the movie was such a faithful adaptation that it lacked any capacity to really unnerve me: I knew every nightmare beat, and I knew who would live or die. So, yes, good movie, overthought it a little bit on the threshold but ultimately would recommend.
2. Best late bandwagoning (third annual!) CRAZY EX-GIRLFRIEND. Once again, I made use of streaming technology to quickly catch up on a tv series that I had heard good things about, and once again, I was not disappointed. I love musicals, as I'm sure I've acknowledged previously, although within that sweeping statement I do have preferred approaches and not-so-muches. I do like musicals where the songs genuinely emphasize and illuminate emotional beats and otherwise inexpressible aspects of the characters' interior lives, musicals where the story is (at least a little bit) larger than life and thus the bursting into song feels of a piece, matching the overall intensity (see: Les Mis, Frozen, etc.). I also like musicals where there's some in-story justification for the music at all, either because it's literally a tale about a musicians who write and perform songs which happen to be autobiographical (see: Hedwig and the Angry Inch) or because the singing and dancing is meant to be metaphorical or otherwise justified in some meta way (see: the musical episode of Scrubs, where a patient has a brain malfunction and hears everything in melody and lyrics, or the Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode where a demon's spell did it). I don't particularly care for jukebox musicals, where existing popular songs are shoehorned into a story. This is probably why I never got into Glee at all (well, and I also heard it was kind of a trainwreck of a show more often than not) nor have I ever been much interested in American Idol or The Voice or Insert Show Where Nobodies I Don't Care About Sing Mediocre Covers.
Anyway, I say all of that to say that Crazy Ex-Girlfriend pushes all of the right buttons and none of the wrong ones. It's a story about a woman who upends her life in an impulsive moment and deals with all the instability that follows, both internal and external. There's more than a little suggestion that most (maybe all) of the tune-belting and choreography are just extended fantasy sequences happening inside the characters' heads as they react to what's "really" happening. And the musical numbers themselves often take on completely non-diegetic trappings of different sets and costumes and cinematic styles, because it's filmed tv and not live Broadway and they can do that, on top of which the songs are decidedly not covers but (even better, to a Beggar's Opera fan) pastiches that use pop culture to comment on the story and simultaneously comment right back on the tropes of pop culture. I don't want to give any specific examples, I just want you (unless you hate all things related to musicals, including joy) to check it out if you haven't already.
3. Best "woke" fiction LOVECRAFT COUNTRY. Please note that when I put "woke" in quotes I am in no way, shape or form denigrating the idea of wokeness in general or the specific wokeness of the book in question. I am merely poking at myself and the very notion that I am sufficiently woke. I know I'm not, but I'm trying. It's been that kind of year, one in which (in addition to other actions of a less passive nature) I deliberately sought out stories farther outside my personal perspective, whether it be women or POCs (or both) recounting memoirs or documenting the world around us in essays or expressing inner truths in fiction. Lovecraft Country, by Matt Ruff, was something I approached as a kind of baby step in this direction. It's a novel, and the author is a white dude, and it's about spooky sci-fi and fantasy stuff. But it's about a family of African-Americans living in the mid 20th century, and it does an excellent job (in my humble opinion) of intertwining real and imaginary horrors, the fear that there are supernatural monsters lurking along a country road in the middle of the night rubbing uncomfortably against the fear that there are racist policemen doing the same.
All good speculative fiction should be a metaphor for something (the reigning champ being Buffy, of course) and Lovecraft Country goes all in on this, and then some. There's value in a story like Planet of the Apes where the humans are lorded over and considered inferior by the simians, and it's all a big parable about racism. And then there's a story like Lovecraft Country where ghosts and cosmic gods and blood magic and the like can illustrate various concepts of otherness and power imbalances and, just in case you missed the point, it all happens in the context of our actual ugly history of segregated housing and education, anti-miscegenation laws, white supremacy and more. Plus the whole story wraps up with a punchline that's equal parts laugh-getter and kick in the gut. It is, to me, an exceptionally compelling way to reckon with unpleasant, uncomfortable truths, and a fantastic gateway to an understanding beyond the usual white privilege of SF/F/H.
4. Most exciting yet unsettling development (second annual!) (The Little Guy's burgeoning interest in George R.R. Martin's) WORLD OF ICE AND FIRE. In many ways, I am living my best life, in that I have an amazing wife and three phenomenal children, and am simultaneously enjoying a golden age of television, the renaissance of Star Wars, the still somewhat unbelievable inescapable Marvel Cinematic Universe, and on and on and on. AND - here's the real gobsmacker - my wife and kids and I can all to a large extent share the enjoyment of these pop culture obsessions. My wife and I read N.K. Jemison novels and watch The Good Place and Stranger Things. As I write this, I have just purchased tickets online for my entire nuclear family to go see a Sunday matinee of The Last Jedi. And seemingly every day there's a new way in which my kids are catching up to me on the classics and/or my personal faves, whether it's my eldest working his way through the last couple doorstopper installments of Harry Potter or my daughter expressing interest in checking out this Secret of NIMH cartoon movie I keep talking about. By and large, my wife and I think of ourselves as equal parts curators and gatekeepers for our children. On the one hand, we try to make sure they don't consume anything that's wildly inappropriate, and that we're there for them if they want to talk about anything that scares, confuses or in some way unsettles them. And on the other hand, we try to point them towards the best of the best stuff. Certainly both my wife and I would consider the tv series Game of Thrones and the novels of A Song of Ice and Fire to be good stuff, but just as certainly it is self-evidently a bit much for a nine year old. However, our obsession with all things of Westeros has led to a lot of tie-in accumulation, including but not limited to: art prints of cats as GoT characters on our den walls; Christmas ornaments; action figures and Ommegang beer bottles on shelves; and reference materials such as detailed maps of the fictional realms and The World of Ice & Fire: The Untold History of Westeros and the Game of Thrones. Let's just call that last one TWOIF for short.
TWOIF is an unwieldy oversized hardback. It would be a coffee table book if we had a coffee table. It's one of those things you buy because the sixth novel hasn't come out yet and doesn't even have a release date and it's months until the new season on HBO and you're dying for a fix. And it's got lovely interior illustrations and thus it wasn't completely surprising when the little guy saw this book lying around with a three headed dragon on the cover and opened it up to find more cool pictures inside and then started reading the text. To date, neither I nor my wife have read this book more than glancingly. It's written in a fairly dry and academic style, filling in the backstory of the saga like a history primer. The good news is this means it's much less salacious or otherwise disturbing than the novels themselves, which is fortunate because the little guy has read the book COVER TO COVER. MORE THAN ONCE. He's still very much of the age and very much the kind of kid who enjoys ordered systems and classifications and all that. For me, the convoluted continuity of comic books scratched that itch. For him, lines of Targaryen succession and the sigils on the banners of the great houses do the same. More power to him, though of course this has led to him asking when he can watch the show (which we own on Blu-ray) or read the books (which, again, reside in the house) and we have been putting him off and putting him off and trying to determine what exactly is the minimum acceptable "old enough". It's not 10. It's probably not 18. Narrowing it down more than that isn't easy. Still, it is nice to think that someday we'll be able to share this particular fandom with him, just weird to be getting a glimpse of it so soon. Oh, and lest anyone think we are the meanest bait-and-switch parents in the world, we did get him a copy of A Knight of The Seven Kingdoms for his ninth birthday, which is the collection of Dunk and Egg stories Martin has written. Fiction, more entertaining than invented history, and practically YA, or at least a bit more kid-appropriate than the ASOIAF novels. He's quickly wearing that book out, too.
Incidentally the runner-up in this category was the little guy becoming obsessed with Pokemon and dragging both his siblings willingly along with him. That's a hole 'nother universe of hundreds of characters and rigid rules, and one which I have NO personal experience with. I mean, sooner or later, all of my kids will have interests which are not just recycled Gen X (or older) intellectual properties. But it is a bit odd nonetheless when it happens.
5. Eeriest music-related realization ALT-ROCK IS OLD. OK, maybe this isn't terribly "eerie" per se, but it does have to do with confronting the fact that the march of time is relentless and my mortality is an irrefutable fact, so that's at least unnerving? Anyway, this year my wife got a new car and I got her old car. (My old car was the trade-in for her new one. Circle of life.) My old car didn't have a working radio in it, but around the end of summer I had a new-to-me car and renewed access to the FM dial. And thus it was that I noticed something which may or may not have been true last year, or the year before that, or even five years ago with me not so much paying close attention with pregnancies and babies and all that RealLife stuff.
I basically listen to two local radio stations. One is BIG 100 and the other is DC 101. (This time of year I also listen to 97.1 which is normally adult contempo but plays Christmas music all December.) BIG 100 is a "classic rock" station. That means they play a lot of the music my parents' generation (mostly my dad and uncles) were listening to when I was growing up. DC 101 is a "modern rock" station, which I trust is self-explanatory. The thing is, both of these stations seem to be experiencing time-dilation. When I was growing up, "classic rock" meant the Beatles, the Stones, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd - bands that had been around since the 60's. Big 100 plays all of those bands but also Van Halen, AC/DC, Pat Benatar, Foreigner - bands that were not just still going in the 80's but in some cases at their highest heights or just gaining traction in the 80's. DC 101 plays the Postal Service and the Revivalists and other relevant, reasonably new music. But they also play older stuff sometimes, too, going back as far as the late 80's or so, presumably whenever they started the "modern rock" format which they have remarkably managed to stay consistent with for decades. (Now watch this be the kiss of death that sees them become a conglomerate country music station or something.) Anyway, I kid you not, I was just looking at the online "recently played" pages for both stations to make sure I was accurately representing them in this paragraph, and there was the point I've been driving at: in the past hour BIG 100 played "Stand" by R.E.M. and DC 101 played "It's The End Of The World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)" also by R.E.M.
It's not just the boys from Athens, either. I've heard Pearl Jam on both stations, and Stone Temple Pilots, maybe even Everclear unless I was hallucinating, and more. Apparently the late 80's and early-to-mid 90's are fair game for either format now. I turned 13 in 1987 and graduated college in 1996 so that's my personal Golden Age/Formative Years. And it was the dawn of alternative rock, still recognized by anyone championing modernity, yet it was so long ago that it's considered classic. Part of me thinks this just means I was very lucky to be born when I was and come of age when I did, but mostly it makes me feel the all-downhill-from-here kind of old.
6. Best throwback comic FUTURE QUEST. So let's talk more about my early 80's childhood instead! Or, to be fair, cartoons from the late 60's that were still getting play when I was an early 80's kid. I grew up a huge fan of the Hanna Barbera adventure cartoons when I was little. The first time I can remember ever wanting my mom to make me a costume for Halloween, because I didn't think it could be bought at the store, it was when I wanted to be Space Ghost. I adored the Herculoids and, come to think of it, maybe the reason why I've indulged my wife in amassing half a dozen pets in our home is because now we're just some blue loincloths and the cats and dogs shooting lasers out their eyes and/or hot rocks out their noses away from living that particular dream.
So, anyway, this year I picked up the first trade collection of Future Quest, which is a crazy mash-up story wherein Jonny Quest teams up with Birdman and meets Mightor and Space Ghost and Frankenstein Junior and is totally bonkers bananapants in the best possible way. It reads a little like fanfic, of course, but I have a soft spot for fanfic and it reads like good fanfic. It was just pure fun and made me happily nostalgic and sometimes that's all it takes to merit inclusion on this year-end countdown, okay?
In the same vein, the best throwback streaming show this year was Parks and Recreation on Netflix. Yes, the show only ended two or three years ago, and that final season was time-jumped forward to 2017 (no holographic phones here in the real version, sadly), but my wife and I loved that show and we miss it and it makes for great dipping-in-and-out-of-at-random because every episode is a delight.
7. Best torch-passing THE INCREDIBLES. I could have mentioned this in passing up above in number four, but I felt like it merited its own entry. I have been trying, unsuccessfully, for years to get my kids to watch The Incredibles. For one thing, it's still pretty much my favorite Pixar movie. For another, my kids have proven oddly resistant to showing any interest in superheroes at all. They never got into Teen Titans GO! The little girl expressed a fleeting interest in DC Superhero Girls and got a Wonder Woman doll, but then she was back to stuffed animals and toy cottages. The little guy read a kid's book about Rocket and Groot but hasn't been asking about Guardians of the Galaxy much at all, even though I'd be more likely to put that movie in the eyeballs of a nine-year-old than Game of Thrones. And countless sets of Legos containing Superman or Captain America or Batman (not to mention the LEGO Batman Movie) have done nothing to light a spark. But maybe, I reasoned, The Incredibles would be a gateway. Whether or not it is remains to be seen, but the fact is while we were at the beach this summer I managed to get all three kids to sit down one afternoon and watch the adventures of the Parr family. And they all liked it! So much so that on a recent December weekend the little girl asked (unprompted!!!) if she could watch it again.
The main thing about being the pop-culture pusher in the family is that I actually try not to push too hard. I suggest things (in super-chill laid-back cool dad mode) and either the kids bite or they don't. The Incredibles felt like an exception to the rule where the kids didn't bite but I kept pushing every now and then anyway. So to have that finally pay off was enormously gratifying.
8. Biggest disappointment ANGEL CATBIRD. One of the books I was really looking forward to checking out this year was Angel Catbird by Margaret Atwood. Margaret Atwood is of course a rightly revered luminary of speculative fiction, and I've been an admirer of hers since college when I read The Handmaid's Tale. I couldn't be happier for the success the television adaptation of Handmaid has garnered. Angel Catbird was Atwood's first stab at doing a superhero comicbook, which of course is my most dearly cherished story genre. It's a standalone work about a superhero who is simultaneously a cat, a bird, and an angel. In other words, it's a bonkers idea, unfettered by any continuity constraints of the existing superhero universes, written by an all-time great, and I was DOWN for that. Except once I finished, I was LETDOWN. It seemed that Atwood decided that superhero comics don't need to make sense at all and took the liberties afforded by the stereotypical idea of comics-as-brainless to throw a whole bunch of incoherent ideas together and call it a day. There's meticulously thought-out bonkers (see FUTURE QUEST above!) and there's disdainful not-even-trying bonkers (see ANGEL CATBIRD). Frustrating.
The runner-up in this category was the NBC sitcom POWERLESS. We DVR'ed it and I gamely watched a few episodes but it never really clicked for me. I think Vanessa Hudgens has serviceable leading lady charms, and Danny Pudi and Alan Tudyk have been involved in some of my all-time favorite shows, and again the whole superhero thing is right in my wheelhouse, including exploring the peripheries thereof, which Powerless promised in setting itself up as superhero-adjacent. I understood that it was always going to be constrained by its own budget, and was going to make that part of the overarching metahumor, where the biggest blockbuster action we were likely to see was a faceoff between Crimson Fox and Jack O'Lantern (and yes, clearly I know the deep backstory of both those fourth-stringer DC Comics characters). And I also understood that another running joke was going to be something along the lines of "Wouldn't it be crazy living as a normal person in the superhero world/Aren't superheroes kind of inherently ridiculous?" What really put me off, though, was the fact that in the end it was a mediocre workplace comedy with a smattering of comicbooky window dressing. As it dawned on me that the plots, and the jokes derived therefrom, could have all the superhero references excised from them and really not change much at all, I realized it really wasn't worth sitting through the stale sitcom jokes (uh oh, somebody is sweating from the strain of keeping up an elaborate cover story to hide a trivially minor problem!) for the occasional none-too-clever Batman Easter egg. Alas.
9. Biggest accomplishment I consume pop culture preeeeeeeeeeetty much like air, food and water. So when I think about accomplishments it's usually in creative terms, like whether or not I sold any short stories this year (which I did!) or finally finished writing a novel of my own (which I did not). To say that I saw something or read something or even learned something is just a natural occurrence, not an achievement. However! Let it be known that 2017 will go down in history as the year that I finally read all three novels of The Lord of the Rings. Growing up as a geek who loved comics, endlessly rewatched Star Wars, played Dungeons & Dragons, and all the rest, my biggest personal gap in first hand knowledge of The Canon was never having consumed Tolkien's trilogy. Everybody has gaps, of course, but it was extra strange that this was mine considering, for example, that my father had read the books before I was born and we had copies of them in the house. Or considering that I had an illustrated storybook and readalong cassette of The Hobbit (based on the Rankin/Bass animated version) which I wore out, and that I did graduate from that to reading the original novel of The Hobbit when I was nine or ten. I tried to move on from there to The Fellowship of the Ring, but I gave up early on because it starts so ponderously. And that was my excuse for years and years: I hadn't read Lord of the Rings though I had tried but couldn't get past the slow beginning. Tolkien's serious-not-for-kids prose was too much not my cup of tea.
Even Peter Jackson's movies couldn't motivate me, though I enjoyed them and felt some measure of satisfaction in finally knowing the majority of the story through their faithful adaptation.
Once again, it all came down to the little guy's burgeoning interests. He read The Hobbit and he (and his siblings) watched the three Hobbit movies, and it seemed logical to move on to Lord of the Rings next. And when I realized it might very well come to pass that my child would have read the trilogy while I still had not, I resolved to finally cross the thing off. So the little guy and I read the trilogy more or less concurrently, passing back and forth the same paperbacks. It still starts off slow! But I powered through, and I'm glad I did. It does have its merits, above and beyond being an ur-text of geekdom, and it is an immense relief to be free from the burden and shame of my prior ignorance. Huzzah!
Notably, this also unlocked the achievement of watching all of Jackson's Lord of the Rings movies as a family. The kids had never seen them, and we went with the extended, four-hours-apiece director's cuts (one at a time, spread out, not some crazy grueling marathon) which even my wife and I had never seen. Everyone enjoyed them, though the bino really wanted more Shelob in the final installment, which is fair.
10. Unfulfilled Ambitions and Anticipations Sometime around the middle of January I set myself a goal of reading 200 short stories over the course of 2017. Between the small press anthologies I try to support, the availability of a decent amount of short fiction one can read for free online, and the fact that I had yet to acquire Stephen King's latest short story collection (Bazaar of Bad Dreams, which came out in 2015!) I thought this was modestly do-able. I fell short by a good bit, though, only logging 124. And I still haven't picked up King's Bazaar. Still, that's ten a month, and I did manage to read Kristen Roupenian's "Cat Person" in the New Yorker, for whatever that's worth.
I don't know if Jordan Peele's Get Out was the most talked about movie in 2017, but it felt that way at various times. I love me some Peele and some subversive horror-comedy, but couldn't make a viewing of Get Out happen. But! I recently DVR'ed it off HBO and my wife has expressed interest in watching it, so that is an oversight I hope to rectify in the very near future.
As far as what I am most looking forward to in 2018, I see no reason to believe the current golden ages of television and movies and pop culture in general are going to come to an abrupt end, so I'm spoiled for choice. But one offering easily stands head and broad, burly shoulders above all the rest: The Incredibles 2!!! June 15 should be a very fun day, especially since it can be a family outing now that I've got the kids on board as fans. Maybe I'll even update the blog again in six months with a review!
Now that the last of the kids' birthday parties for the year have come and gone, I spent a little time yesterday organizing some of our toy storage in the living room. While sorting through the bins of Paw Patrol vehicles and Happy Meal toys (an astonishing number of those, I must confess) and dried up Disney princess markers and random tokens and chits from board games, I found a pair of nail clippers, a monogrammed wine stopper, and the spare housekey we normally set aside for pet sitters (which we'd been looking for a week ago but couldn't find in any of the sane, logical places you might think to look for a key).
Of course I couldn't help but think of good old Lord Business. But also, I wondered what the heck it is that my kids found so especially appealing, if not downright toyetic, about those particular doodads. Of course there's no point in asking the kids themselves; they can't tell me why exactly they felt compelled to engage in something I catch them red-handed in the act of doing. Just chalk it up to random kid weirdness, I reckon. Never a dull moment.
My kids are eight, six and four now (he said, because it's been so long since this blog was updated on anything close to a regular basis that he has absolutely no expectation that anyone would remember) and those really are some fun ages. All of them are too old for diapers, naps, and other such signifiers of babyhood, which gives us on the whole a lot more flexibility of scheduling and freedom of movement and whatnot. The eldest reads at a fairly advanced level (Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings and Star Wars novelizations &c.) and the six-year-old is coming up fast behind him; the 'bino still needs to be read to but he enjoys it and will pick books out for himself to listen to. But at the same time, they're all still little enough to have wild, unfettered imaginations, and to enjoy flagrant displays of affection with their parents, and various good innocent fun stuff like that. If it were in fact possible to pause time and keep things exactly the same, now would be as good a time as any to hit the button.
So yesterday was Father's Day and serves well as a micro-case-in-point. All three kids made little craft projects for me at their daycare, and all three involved self-expression. For the four-year-old, the pre-school teacher asked him why he loves his dad and faithfully transcribed the answer onto a keyhook plaque that the 'bino had painted. His answer, for the record, was because I read to him at bedtime. The other two kids are n the same before-and-after elementary school program, so they made popsicle-stick-and-ribbon wall hangings, with a different reason why they love their dad written on each stick. The scion wrote three reasons, leaving the last two sticks blank, though as I unwrapped the gift he promised he would get around to finishing it. (He has some low-grade ADHD issues, so again, this is perfectly illustrative.) And my darling little girl provided her own four reasons for filial devotion, and the number one on her list was: "Because he has a mustache."
Fair enough! That is certainly something that has been true her entire life (and much longer, to be honest). And the mustache also has a pretty good historical track record of symbolically indicating the father figure. In fact, let's just go ahead and acknowledge that American Father's Day is for all intents a repurposing of St. Joseph's Day, the Feast of the Holy Father. I can't recall ever seeing any religious iconography of Joseph of Nazareth where the dude doesn't have a full complement of handsome facial hair. I'm not saying being clean-shaven rules out the possibility that you can be a good dad, but apparently, in my daughter's book at least, the fuzzy-faced look is a big plus.
I'm also reminded of the fact that at some point in my youth (i.e. my early teens, when my own father was in his late thirties), my father shaved the mustache he had been growing since college. He got a fair number of complements, no negative feedback to speak of, and life continued more or less as normal for our family unit (for a little while longer, anyway). His childhood best friend, with whom he was still in regular contact and who also had sported whiskers for close to two decades, observed all of this and decided to un-mustache. His act of radical grooming had for more consequential repercussions! That guy's wife simply refused to accept his naked upper lip, and not only gave him the silent treatment for a few days but convinced his two sons (who were, like, ten and eight or something) to do the same, until the guy relented and began regrowing his mustache. These days we're all still in touch, and while my father has gone several rounds over the past two and a half decades of clean-shaven to fully bearded and back again, his old chum has stuck with the 'stache ever since. So, you know, to each his own.
Meanwhile ... Guardians of the Galaxy vol. 2 opened this past weekend. I haven't seen it yet (a situation I will remedy asap, I hope) but that is beside the point. As part of the overall Marvel/Disney promotional blitz, there are a ton of tie-in products flooding various media markets, including some books aimed at elementary school kids starring Rocket and Groot. The little guy (who is now at the tail end of third grade) borrowed one of these books from his classroom library and really liked it.
This, of course, got me thinking that the little guy might enjoy watching the first Guardians of the Galaxy movie. As a sign of how much things have changed since our in-home viewing of The Muppets, making plans to watch GotG together is not all that outre. Yes, it's a PG-13 movie, and yes, he's only eight and a half, but then again, it wouldn't even be the first PG-13 movie he'd ever seen. He's gotten four installments into the Harry Potter films, and the other day he watched the original Jurassic Park, and I'm sure I'm forgetting a couple others. Not to say that his mother and I have simply surrendered the point and now let him watch anything he expresses interest in without a second thought; rather, we've entered the phase of giving consideration to individual movies. Is it PG-13 because of sci-fi violence and a couple of fleeting expletives? That's probably fine. Is it PG-13 because of ... "adult" situations, or blunt suggestions thereof? Less shrug-worthy, more careful consideration required. And so it goes. At least he still listens to us, and likely will for another couple of years (if memory serves I was at least in fifth grade before I was ignoring my parents completely and smart enough to keep things secret if I sussed out they'd rather not know about it anyway). We might as well actively parent while the friction level is low.
So, the thought of sitting down on the couch to watch Guardians of the Galaxy on Blu-ray with my little guy occurs. And it is an attractive idea! I really do love that movie. (Re-reading my original assessment of the flick from the summer it came out, I'm a bit taken aback by how I sound, as if I merely liked it, as if it were good but not great. My affection has only increased over time, I suppose.) And as I was mulling over the possibility, considering it from all angles, not least the non-zero chance that maybe the little guy wouldn't especially take a shine to it, I started thinking about how the anachronistic soundtrack is one of the best things about the movie. From the moment "Come and Get Your Love" kicked on during the opening credits, the movie more or less had me in the palm of its hand.
To say nothing of the use of Blue Swede and the Runaways, and maybe most especially Baby Groot grooving to "I Want You Back" ... I mean, COME ON. So good, at least to me and my cohort, right? But I confess I've been pretty slack about indoctrinating my children to the classics, so the Awesome Mix might not be particularly emotionally resonant.
Y'all, I swear to you, it was just this past week that I finally put it together that Guardians of the Galaxy had used the exact same demographic manipulative trickery as The Muppets.
Because ... because ... see, the anachronistic soundtrack in GotG, the Awesome Mix qua mixtape, that's an actual, integral part of the storyline of the movie. It matters, maybe not in resolving the plot of who controls The Orb, but certainly in terms of Star-Lord's emotional arc. It's all he has left of his mom, and as we see at the outset it's been a long time since he and his mom (and Earth) were separated so of course it's a throwback, and not just to his childhood but to hers, passed down through the generations ... I thought that was pretty clever storytelling, using the well-established practice of scoring action movies with pop music and making it both diegetic and intrinsically character-revealing. I still do find that satisfyingly clever, and one of the best things about the movie.
But yeah, boil it all down and it's also a blatant attempt to get the audience on Star-Lord's side with ruthless efficiency, because he reminds us of ourselves when we were little kids. Which is not a bad thing. With The Muppets, I was vaguely aware of it and vaguely skeptical at the same time. With GotG, it just slipped right past my defenses and did its job very well, thank you.
In any case, if the little guy and I do end up bonding over the cinematic sci-fi comic book stuff, maybe that will give me an opening to start priming him and his siblings on Marvin Gaye and Norman Greenbaum.
1. Best visual pun Chilling Adventures of Sabrina. OK, stay with me on this one. This summer I picked up the first collection of a newish comic book series, Chilling Adventures of Sabrina. It is a dark reimagining of the beloved Archie character Sabrina the Teenage Witch, done as overt horror assuming that Sabrina's family heritage of witchcraft involves actual demon worship and ritual human sacrifice and whatnot. It is a HOOT. It's not played for laughs, it's legitimately creepy and pretty far from camp. But there's still an inherent humor to it simply by nature of the premise, taking this innocuous character orginially presented in bright colors with rounded edges and pushing it into nightmare territory, and incongruous juxtaposition which can certainly produce a chuckle or two when things go really over the top. And furthermore, it's all done as a period piece, which allows for certain amusing, historically 20/20 social commentary as well. Quite a bit of the art is at least photo-referenced, using celebrity archetypes from the late 50's and early 60's to drive the point home. So ultimately this leads to a great joke when the characters of Betty and Veronica show up.
And, see, Veronica is a brunette so she gets modeled after a very famous brunette pin-up, with her square cut bangs as a dead giveaway: Bettie Page. Whereas Betty, with the waves in her blonde hair, looks like she's being drawn as an homage to ... Veronica Lake. So Betty is Veronica and Veronica is Bettie! OK, I thought it was funny.
2. Best late bandwagoning (second annual!) Orange Is the New Black. Right about the time that Orange Is the New Black was releasing its most recent season my wife and I decided to finally give it a try. And at this point, really, what is there to say? It's pretty great! We did our version of binge-watching, which means we would watch one episode per night every night, as long as we were home and neither of us was too exhausted and there wasn't something else, like a live sporting event, that we needed to watch more urgently. Some nights we would watch two episodes back-to-back, if we were feeling particularly wild.
We paused after the third season, in an effort to savor the fourth. I know that there are three additional seasons more or less guaranteed, which is great, but of course what will probably happen is that Season 5 will be released right on top of the premiere of Game of Thrones Season 7, #firstworldproblems. (In fact, one reason why we paused OINTB was to re-watch GoT Season 6 when our Blu-ray copy was delivered. Now as we wait to get back to Westeros, we can amble back to Litchfield for a spell, #fantasyworldproblems.)
3. Most problematic recommendation Jessica Jones. See the post from earlier this week for the full explanation as to why I really dug Jessica Jones but find it hard to impress upon other people that they should watch it.
4. Most depressing thing I read The Sun and the Moon. OK, as long as I've re-opened the unhappy box, let me go ahead and get this one out of the way, too. The Sun and the Moon is a fantastic book! It covers a specific moment in American history, basically the summer of 1835 (although it does provide quite a bit of backstory as well), to tell the tale of the rise of city newspapers as a truly populist mass medium, as opposed to a luxury for the upper merchant class. It delves into early 19th century sensationalism, scandals and crime reporting and whatnot, but ultimately explores the production and reception of a series of articles purporting to be authentic scientific discoveries of lifeforms and civilizations on the moon observed by new telescopes. This, of course, was pure science fiction, but well-crafted and presented to stand on its own in such a way that many people believed the hoax until it was revealed to be just that. Along the way the story loops in various American luminaries, several of whom are near and dear to my heart, including P.T. Barnum and Edgar Allen Poe.
So is it depressing to read about people's gullibility? Not really, no, at least not with respect to whether or not winged furry humanoids called Lunarians really exist. What gave me the blues was the fact that the book identified another facet of the ascent of daily newspapers, which served as political mouthpieces often with unapologetically brazen agendas. And in 1835, one of the hot-button political issues in the U.S. was slavery. What was depressing was reading some of the arguments for and against slavery which went back and forth in the pages of the papers. Pro-slavery voices often fell back on the Bible to justify the practice. Abolitionists often pointed out that there are lots of things in the Bible which weren't done anymore, and cherry picking chapters and verses to rationalize crimes against humanity is really not a particularly satisfying answer. This of course went round and round and changed very few minds and accomplished very little, and then we had a bloody war about it to settle things. It's my own fault, really, that like many modern people I think any given phenomenon is something new and unique to our slice of history. And so I was blindsided by this idea that people holding up the Bible to justify trampling others' rights, and people pointing out how inconsistent and hypocritical that was, and people continuing to trample while jamming Bibles in their ears and chanting "Bible! Bible! Bible!" was actually a good hundred and eighty years old. I like to believe things do get better as life goes on, but sometimes I wonder.
5. Biggest missed opportunity Charles Dance as the big bad of the Monsterverse. Right, now, let's talk about stupid monster movies! We added HBO to our cable package some time ago (2014, maybe?) and I often find myself comparing the experience of having it now as a middle-aged parent, after a long stretch where I didn't have it, to back when I was a kid and HBO was one of many perks of living in my parents' house. One of the biggest differences is that, as a child, I often would be flipping around the tv channels, bored, hit HBO to find that a movie had just started, and wind up watching the whole thing. This almost never happens as an adult, for reasons which I assume should be obvious. But it did happen once this past year. My wife and I settled onto the couch after getting the kids to bed, there was nothing we were in the midst of slow-bingeing (see above), and my wife only wanted the tv on as background noise anyway (she had paperwork to do). So I stumbled upon Dracula Untold on HBO and gave it a few minutes; I remembered it had more or less flopped but I wanted to see if it was "so bad it's good" or merely sub-mediocre.
I ended up watching most of it, and I have to say, it might not be much above mediocre, but it's certainly not sub. I admire the ambition of the filmmakers, turning Vlad into this scary-yet-sympathetic-yet-still-really-evil tragic protagonist. They Batmanned the hell out of him, and Luke Evans works with what he's given. Moreover, you might (read: you probably don't) recall that Universal was trying to breed their own cash cow mega-franchise, wherein they would do origin stories for the classic monsters like Dracula and Frankenstein and the Wolfman and the mummy, and then bring them together MCU Avengers-style for a billion dollar blockbuster. Batmanization notwithstanding, turning monsters into superheroes is a bit of a stretch, and announcing the intent ahead of time just seemed like hubris and probably had people rooting for them to fail, but for what it's worth, again, I will not personally crap on someone for aiming too high.
And then there's Undead Tywin Lannister! I had a vague recollection that Charles Dance was in Dracula Untold, and indeed he is, as the ancient vampire who transforms Vlad Tepes, a perfectly good use of Dance's ice cold bastard persona. What I did not know, until I got sucked into the flick and suddenly two hours later found myself watching the epilogue which apparently woudl have set up the modern day crossover, was that Dance was going to be the primary antagonist, being just as immortal as Dracula and having followed him into the present ready to make his life hell. That would have been great! A movie where Dracula, the ghost of Frankenstein, and the Creature from the Black Lagoon have to save the world that fears and despises them might have been dumb as all get-out, but if it had included sufficient supervillain scenery chewing by Charles Dance, I would have been there full price on opening night! Alas, it seems this potential was squandered by middling box office returns. Oh, what could have been.
6. Most surprising use of Netflix stand-up specials. For a long, looooooooong time, way past the period when everyone else shifted over to the streaming model, my Netflix account was used to rent physical DVDs by mail. If you are a long time reader of this blog, you know that's because for years I rode the train and often watched movies or tv shows on the commute, using a portable DVD player and discs, because the rails went through some terrain that didn't have reliable cell coverage and the train didn't have WiFi and blah blah blah. I have since come around and gotten the streaming version myself. But if you had told me, back in 2010 or so, that one of the best uses I would get out of the in-home streaming service was the ability to order up a stand-up comedy special any time I wanted, particularly when my wife and I needed a break from scripted dramas and such, I would have found that pronouncement ... odd. Not unbelievable, I've always really liked stand-up comedy, just not the knee-jerk assumption I would have made. Nevertheless, here we are, and after watching a few online series (in addition to OINTB, we loved Kimmy Schmidt and Stranger Things) and several on-demand movies, the fact that we streamed Aziz Ansari and Ali Wong and Bo Burnham and Jen Kirkman and Donald Glover doing killer comedy is like this crazy bonus jar of funny cherries on top.
7. Best new media audio books of memoirs written by comedians and read by the comedians themselves. Speaking of comedy, 2016 was also the year that I finally gave in to the recorded siren call of audiobooks. I had been of the firm opinion that audiobooks simply don't count, by which I mean of course that everything in my life is some kind of running tally which translates quantifiably into a sense of accomplishment: how many blog posts I make, how many hits my blog gets (obviously I got over both of those this year, too), how many classic movies I've seen (hence my 1001 Movie Blog Club experiment), how many books I've read in a given year (thank you, GoodReads). Reading, to me, feels like an active mental undertaking, while listening to an audiobook seems like more of a passive thing which I wouldn't deserve too much (if any) credit for .
But things change. I don't take a train to work anymore, I drive, and the state police really frown on people reading books while operating a motor vehicle, even in the stop-and-go bumper-to-bumper traffic of peak rush hour I-66! I even went on a few work-related trips this year, and had to drive myself from Virginia to New Jersey and back one weekend. It was on that trip that I decided to finally make use of this Audible membership with monthly free credits I apparently get with my Amazon Prime account. So I downloaded Patton Oswalt's Silver Screen Fiend to my phone and listened to it while driving the leg home, and it was enjoyable enough that it unleashed a flood. (It helps that the radio in my car is totally dead, so it's the apps on my phone or dead silence for those two hours out of every day I'm behind the wheel.) I figured if I'm going to start listening to audiobooks regularly I ought to impose totally arbitrary limits on my consumption! Okay, not really, but I did like that Patton recorded himself reading his own book, because it guaranteed that all the jokes would at least be delivered as intended, and it was kind of like listening to a comedy album, something I assuredly have never had a problem with. I tried, and am still trying, to break things up with an audio novel read by a professional vocal narrator artist type every so often, but mostly I gorged on comedians performing their memoirs: Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Nick Offerman, Aisha Tyler, Jenny Lawson. Really I've found that it's kind of like going on a road trip with someone cool and funny riding shotgun, where the agreed upon division of labor is that I'll do all the driving if they just tell me entertaining stories from their life.
8. Most exciting yet unsettling development the little guy getting ahead of me on Clone Wars. Star Wars has gotten its clutches into my kids in a big way, most especially the little guy, who is now eight years old and absolutely the prime age for it. And of course I am thrilled about this development. I've found myself softening quite a bit on the prequels, because my kids really dig them. The bino (he's three) thinks Jar Jar Binks is funny, thus settling the age-old question as to whether Jar Jar is in fact designed to appeal to children or fails at that and is simply universally reviled, and the little guy really likes the whole Jedi Order and seeing them at the center of the story rather than as abstract background information.
It is strange, in its way, that the little guy is growing up with a different version of what is canon than I had. I had the original trilogy all on its own for a while, although that was fleshed out in little bits here and there by Star Wars comics, novels, role-playing games, video games, and the like. Then came the prequels, which were a mixed bag to adult sensibilities, and then a ton more comics and games and novels and Wookieepedia ... and then Disney bought Lucasfilm and said a lot of that Expanded Universe stuff no longer counted, but also gave us the very good Force Awakens. But before that, I had really kind of drifted away from trying to experience and understand everything about Star Wars. It felt like diminishing returns; the let-down of Episodes I through III predisposed me to think that any further attempts to wring more story out of that particular galaxy was not worth the effort.
Case in point: years ago my sister gave me a DVD for Christmas which was the pilot movie of the Clone Wars tv series. And every year I told myself I should make time to watch it, and every year I failed to do so, and it just sat on my bookshelf, still shrinkwrapped and collecting dust. Then my kids watched all six Star Wars movies and were still hungry for more and I figured, why not let them watch Clone Wars? At that point I had heard good things about Clone Wars, that out of all the ancilliary tie-ins it was definitely at the top end, quality-wise. My own reasons for never breaking the seal had shifted from "eh, I've got better things to do than be disappointed in Star Wars some more" to "I just don't have the free time to invest in this no matter how good it is" but that's not a problem my kids share. Sure enough, they liked the movie and so started watching the series (which, cybersaints be praised, is available in its entirety on Netflix). This is all well and good, except that at this point the little guy has watched something like 38 episodes of the show and I've never seen a single one. He now considers Ziro the Hutt and Captain Rex and Luminara Unduli and Cad Bane big parts of the canon. Technically he knows more about Star Wars than I do! Which makes me happy and proud but also the slightest bit wistful. Passing torches is good, but my torch-hand now feels conspicuously empty. I suppose it's all just part of the whole parenting gig.
9. Best movie-going experience Keanu. When I started compiling notes for this post (months ago, obvs.) I had more or less assumed that this slot would be dedicated to taking the little guy to see Rogue One in the theater. Not only does it tie in nicely to the previous entry, but it raises an interesting tidbit: the little guy has never seen any Star Wars movie on the big screen! He turned down an invitation to see Force Awakens at a theater, but he's a year older now and I do believe he's ready. Or, I did believe. Here's the current logistical considerations: I personally haven't gotten to see Rogue One yet. And since Christmas is about two and half days away, I probably won't until next week. At which point I will see it with my wife, while the kids are at daycare, because Rogue One is rated PG-13 and that at a minimum calls for a pre-screening by both parents to ascertain whether or not we are comfortable with the eight-year-old seeing it. Assuming it passes that test, I can then think about scheduling a father-son outing, but for all I know that might not come together until some time in early January, and this list is supposed to be all about 2016, soooo ...
Keanu was really good! I went into it with fairly low expectations, just bound and determined to support Key and Peele because I loved their sketch show so much. My wife did, too, so it was an ideal date movie (except that it didn't feature any sandal-wearing emo heroes with ripped abs - I'm not going to link to the old posts explaining why that's a running joke, just trust me, I'm hilarious). And we continue to love the local Alamo Drafthouse Cinema, so here, take my money, give some of it to Jordan and Keegan-Michael, and bring me your finest beer and chicken wings. The fact that the movie was LOL-funny was a welcome addition to the overall enjoyment.
10. Mea Culpas I can't think of any other highlights in my year of pop culture, so I'll close with the other things, like Rogue One, which were never in contention for this list because I just didn't get around to them. This year I got into Breaking Bad, but only through Season 1 and a little bit into Season 2, so I understand I still have the best parts ahead of me. I failed to catch Season 2 of Agent Carter, or Season 1 of Preacher, and I gave up on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. I DVR'ed Thor: The Dark World, watched half of it, but have yet to finish it, so that remains the one flick in the MCU I've never seen. I really wanted to see Park Chan-wook's The Handmaiden in the theater, but it got a very limited release and never came to my local Alamo, so I'll have to VOD it at some point. I started reading Justin Cronin's The Twelve about six months ago but never finished it, because I designated it my "read while I'm working out on the elliptical or treadmill" book and, oh man, have I been bad about working out lately. That's a whole 'nother story. (It's a short one, though: I'm lazy AF.) There remains to this day a tiny part of me that longs for an injury or illness which would force me to be on bedrest for three or four weeks, during which time I could read and write and watch tv and movies and just generally have minimal responsibilities and maximal free time. I know that's ridiculous, both because I clearly have a lot of free time to enjoy a lot of things I like, as this post demonstrates, and there are countless scads of people less fortunate than I am in that regard, not to mention the fact that the very responsibilities to which I refer are primarily my wife, my kids, and my cool new job, all of which by an honest accounting make me very happy!
So instead I will simply content myself with having made it to the end of another year, knowing that I have a whole brand new year to look forward to. I will doubtless read more books, see more shows, go to more movies, and do lots of other stimulating, worthwhile things, and I am truly grateful for that. It may not come all at once, and it may in fact come in tiny fits and spurts around the edges of a very full life, but I will never actively complain about that, either.