Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Deliberate discomfort

So it’s been about four months since I signed up for Facebook and I am still kind of fascinated by the way the whole thing functions. I don’t post updates all that often, mostly when I get tagged on a meme or when I think I have something reasonably brief particularly compelling to sound off about. Not just compelling to me, mind you, but to at least some segment of my Friends list, which strikes me as the whole point. If I want to go on and on for hundreds or thousands of words that happens to be on my mind, with zero regard to whether anyone else wants to hear about it, clearly that’s what this blog is for. And if I’m honest, I have more of those kinds of thoughts on a regular basis than I do pithy, Like-worthy inspirations.

So I’m more of a content-consumer on Facebook than a content-producer. And by and large, the content that I’m consuming there is the same kind of info I consume across the interwebs in general: mainly pop culture stuff, specifically my geeky little wheelhouses. There are people who appear in my feed linking to stuff I never would have stumbled across on my own, and I appreciate that a lot. There are also people who take the time to compose status updates that say things like “I’ve been catching up on Popular TV Show lately. I’m enjoying it.” … which … I mean … ok? This doesn’t bug me, per se. I can skip right over say-nothing fluff posts like that without feeling like a time-wasting crime has been perpetrated upon me. But every once in a while my brain tries to wrap itself around the why’s and wherefore’s of a person taking the time to type something like that, and has yet to succeed at that.

There are a few people in my feed who I’m pretty sure, if I were to systematically track and classify their frequent posts, would prove to spend 90% of their Facebook time complaining about stuff. Mostly stupid pop culture stuff, which, again, no skin off my nose, but all the same doesn’t strike me as the best use of someone’s time and energy and connectivity.

And of course there are some people who have particular ideological axes to grind and do so relentlessly. Everybody has their hobby horses, I know, but of course the extra layer of weirdness with Facebook (at least in my experience) is when I’ve initiated or accepted a friend request with someone I knew in high school and haven’t talked to in decades, and now the only image I have of this person as an adult is that they are obsessed with a handful of positions from some particular socio-political agenda. And out of context like that, it often leaves me scratching my head. Like the guy who was in marching band with me back when we were kids, who is now some flavor of libertarian anarchist. Eerily, he was posting daily links to stories about police corruption and police misconduct for a long while (maybe for years, definitely months that I saw) before the Ferguson MO story blew up. Which might have made me think that, you know, maybe this guy was on to something, except that his second-favorite topic is men’s rights and spewing bile at the concept (or really his straw-man misconception) of feminism, which fundamentally discredits him in my eyes. So if he's trying to change hearts and minds, he's shooting himself in the foot (though I suspect that's not what he's about, as I'll get back to below).

And yet I haven’t unfollowed him, or anyone else, really. Actually I did unfollow one person within the first couple weeks I was on Facebook, because I found his ultra-conservative posts annoying. I had waited until multiple posts got under my skin, assuming a three-strikes policy was fair. But shortly after that I realized that a lot of people were probably going to have three strikes sooner or later, so I eased off the trigger. And eventually I re-followed my struck-out friend, too. Because I came to the realization, basically, that I don’t want to be a hypocrite.

I do understand, and have no major issue with, people being very selective about whom they actively follow on Facebook. There’s a manner dance of politeness going on with accepting friend requests and a ton of attendant drama with unfriending people, and unfollowing is a much more benign way of handling things. If anyone wants to use Facebook to keep in touch with certain people and has no desire to stoke their own rage by having philosophies they vehemently disagree with shoved down their throat, but also wants to spare themselves confrontations galore, by all means, use the unfollow function at will. I’m not trying to outline a code of behavior that I insist everyone else should adopt, I am purely talking about myself and my personal approach here.

What seems pretty clear is that Facebook, like many other modern media outlets, is something of an echo chamber, an online tool for preaching to the choir. People post things that some people find outrageous but other people find confirming what they already believe, and they Like those things and affirm the person who posted it, and so one side of any given debate feels a warm and fuzzy sense of righteous certainty and the other side feels a galvanizing sense of righteous indignation, and everyone digs in a little deeper in their us-versus-them mentality. And that does bother me, I admit it. I learned a long time ago that nobody ever has their mind changed by something they read online, not a well-researched and well-constructed thinkpiece and certainly not a one-liner in the comments section. That’s a writer’s dream, and I was certainly susceptible to it at one point, but I didn’t log on yesterday. So I strive not to get drawn into “debates” on the web, because that way lies only madness. But what I wish, what the change is that I want to see in the world and therefore should set myself to being, is that people would let go of their bunker mentalities and do more listening and less sharpening their rebuttals and counterattacks.

I’m aware that as time is going by the battle lines are hardening. People gravitate towards others who think like they do and believe what they believe, and that influences where people live or go to school or go to work or how they spend their time in general. It’s a self-sustaining vicious cycle where meaningful change simply isn’t possible, since nothing that might come from within can get any kind of support from without, where everything’s been purposefully arranged to maintain the way things have always been. If anything, the internet has really exacerbated this condition, because if a person happens to find him/herself in circumstances where most of the people around them represent differing viewpoints, it’s all too easy to go online and find virtual niche communities where everyone agrees and nothing has to be challenged at all.

It’s a two-edged sword, of course, and I’m not saying that like-attracting-like is some kind of fatal flaw that needs to be eradicated. But when enjoying the company of those with common interests morphs into putting on blinders and deluding yourself that everyone (you can still see ) agrees with you so everything must be fine, that’s problematic at best, and self-destructively dangerous at worst.

And I’m not saying that I have this all figured out, to the point where I’m totally zen about the whole kaleidoscopic wonder-show that is human experience up and down every conceivable continuum. I have opinions which come down on one side of the spectrum or the other, and I like it when other people bolster those opinions with their agreement, and I bristle when people disagree and get downright rankled when people express their differing opinions in ways that imply not just a different take but the conviction that they are Right and I am Wrong. But, to me, bristling and being rankled are supposed to be part of being alive and engaged with the world. I could wall myself off from all things disruptive to my peace of mind, but I don’t want to. It’s not always easy, but I’d rather stay open to new things. Every once in a while one of those things that gets my hackles up at first might actually push me toward deeper understanding and quite possibly, miracle of miracles, change my mind about something in the long run. (It’s been known to happen.) I can’t give up on that potential. Maybe more to the point, I don’t want other people to eliminate their chances of meeting me in the middle, either. So for starters, I have to be willing to take my own advice.

So I’ve abandoned any pretense of thinking all or even most of the world agrees with me on all the important stuff. Barring the most egregiously offensive kind of hatefulness and legitimate harm, I’ll keep an eye on everything that everyone puts out there, and expand my awareness of how wide-ranging human opinions can be (and I’ll even try to remind myself that the portion of global population that is online and speaks English is not 100%) I still won’t gird myself for flame-wars or other forms of anonymous interweb proselytizing, but when I meet a kindred spirit face to face who is genuinely interested in civilized discussion and exchange of viewpoints, I’ll be as prepared as I can be, and not inhibited my atrophied mental faculties. I don’t know if any of all that will necessarily change the world, but it still strikes me as worth doing.

Monday, September 8, 2014

I don't know what I was thinking last night

The upside to having a child's birthday party on a Sunday afternoon is that it gives you all day Saturday and part of Sunday to run around assembling the various food and beverage and decoration and party favor and giftwrap components, not to mention clean the house top to bottom, before showtime.

The downside is that by the time the party is over, and the guests have left, and the majority of the disposable debris has been shoveled into the garbage, and the kids who live in your house have been put to bed, you find yourself with just barely enough energy to sit on the couch in front of the tv eating cheez curls directly out of the economy-size bag, and in nine and a half hours you have to get up and get ready for work.

Fortunately there's not much going on at work lately. And the party was fun, across the board but especially for the birthday boy himself, so it was worth it. I shall endeavor to have my head more in the blogging game tomorrow.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Saturday Grab Bag Between Celebrations

The official birthday party for the little guy isn't until tomorrow, but I had to offer up a couple of details from the celebration, such as it was, on his actual date of birth this past Thursday. Plus a few other random tidbits. Haven't done a grab bag in a while but here we go!

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I'm usually actively pleased by the speed with which Amazon ships me things via UPS. As often as not it seems like things arrive before the guaranteed-by date, and even when they only show up on time as opposed to early, the boxes are waiting for me on the front steps when I get home from work. Of course, if there were ever going to be an outlier data point that pushed things to the limit, it would have to involve a child's birthday presents, wouldn't it? To be fair, a lot of this was on me: it took a while to decide exactly how crazy we were going to go trying to tick boxes on the little guy's birthday wishlist (ultimate answer: kinda-but-not-completely crazy) and then I think I pulled the trigger on Saturday, but of course both Sunday and Monday were days when nothing moved on the order thanks to the Labor Day holiday. Still, the items were guaranteed by September 4th (no later than 8 p.m.), which was good enough. Except that this was the one time when, for whatever reason, the UPS route didn't swing through our neighborhood in the early afternoon. The goods did not, in fact, arrive until 6:45 p.m.

When I picked the little guy up from daycare on Thursday he said the very first thing he wanted to do when he got home was open his birthday present (singular), just like Mom had said he could that morning. Having not been home yet myself, I assured him that was no problem, only to be somewhat dismayed by the barren stoop visible as we pulled into the driveway. To the little guy's immense credit, he took this turn of events in stride, with minor disappointment but nothing close to a total meltdown. He was further mollified by his special pancake dinner and the bonus surprise of chocolate ice cream for dessert. (When the gifts didn't show up a day early as I had been hoping, I made a late run to 7-11 for ice cream just to make sure I had some cover - whew.)

Anyway, it was nerve-wracking stalling for time in the six o'clock hour after dinner in the hopes that the little guy could open his present and have time to play with and still get to bed at a reasonable time; the closer it got to 8 p.m. with no delivery, the less feasible all that would be. But it all worked out in the end. Still, I really must remember to factor in the holiday gaps in shipping calendars in the future.

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Relatedly, one of the first things the little guy has acquired in first grade is a notebook pre-printed with a two-page spread for every week of the school year, including spaces for nightly homework assignments and weekly spelling lists and so on. At the front of the notebook are various reference tables and such, and there's also a page each child can personalize with their name and age and interests and whatnot. There is of course the requisite "When I grow up I want to be a ______" space, and as I was looking through the notebook I asked the little guy what he wanted to put there. In the past few years he has envisioned himself as everything from an astronaut to a race car driver, but this week his answer was "Lego store owner." Obviously.

But in what I thought was a highly amusing sign of his growing maturity and awareness of the working of the real world, he turned to his sister and elaborated to her. "If I had a Lego store, it would be the best job ... and I would take the money that I made working there, and I would use it ... to buy myself Legos!" And he laughed at himself and the circularity of it, but I was impressed that he understood that owning a store doesn't mean you get everything in it for free.

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Finally, to prove that I am still aware of things that have nothing to do with children's birthdays and/or highly sophisticated interlocking brick systems, it's football season and the Pick'em Pool has begun! After I registered my picks for the week I went to the page that shows everyone else's. Of course, before the games start, it doesn't really show the picks (that would give an unfair bet-hedging advantage to people who picked closer to the deadline) but it does show whether or not someone has made them at all. I was hoping to see what the odds were of at least getting a leg up on people who had forgotten to make picks for week 1's Thursday kick off. And I was pleased to see that my dear old 89-year-old grandma had her picks already locked and loaded. She picked the Seahawks in the opener, as it turned out, so she's off to a red-hot start once again! I will post updates on her dominance as appropriate throughout the season.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Compulsories

Oh so very much to say about what haps have been happing in the youth demographic of my household. First and foremost, today is the little guy’s 6th birthday. I left for work before he awoke this morning, but tonight he will get a special dinner of his choosing (pancakes and bacon) as well as one birthday present. He will probably be given the present before dinner so as to maximize the amount of time he can play with it before being forced into bed (tomorrow is a school day as well) which will then put him in the difficult position of having to choose between favorite new toy and favorite food shortly thereafter. Ha, just kidding, he will not be given a choice, dinner isn’t really optional in our house, not even on your birthday.

This coming Sunday we will have a proper birthday party for the little guy, with some of his friends, and his godparents, and the local grandparents and aunt and uncle. There will be hot dogs and ice cream cake and many, many things Lego (including the remainder of his presents from his mother and me). Should be good times. I’m looking forward to it at any rate.

As mentioned on Tuesday, the little guy went back to school this week, embarking on the grand adventure of first grade. My wife took him BTS shopping over Labor Day weekend for both clothes and school supplies, which was moderately successful. The little guy was due for a new lunchbox and new backpack as well, and I was expecting him to of course gravitate towards the Lego Movie licensed merch, but the pickings were slim (whether because we were late into the fray or because the Lego people are being really selective about how much branded crap they put out there, I’m not entirely sure). So his new lunchbox is plain blue, and his new backpack is Batman-themed (though, to be fair, it’s the black-and-yellow Burton-era Batman, much like the Batman in the Lego Movie, which I have no doubt was the appeal) and he only got one new Lego t-shirt with the rest of his wardrobe upgrades all fairly simple non-graphic duds. He seemed happy overall, so all’s well.

The backpack is actually fairly hilarious because it’s just black with the Bat symbol on it, near the top. Batman of course, like any classic-patterned superhero, wears his symbol on his chest, so the backpack is something like a close-up of his torso. Something very like it, in fact, seeing as how the front pocket is actually molded to look like pecs and abs, which I admit I find hysterical. (Torso pun!) Honestly, it’s just as well that the backpack itself has extra muscles built in, because man did that kid have a lot of crap to carry to school on the first day. Apparently, school systems (or ours, anyway) are so strapped for cash now that they don’t budget for the teachers’ supplies, and instead each student contributes not only their own pencils and composition books and gluesticks but also packages of dry erase markers and boxes of tissues and sundries like that. And honestly, I’m fine with that. Given the choices of A) a classroom that lacks various necessities B) higher taxes or C) getting the parents of the kids to all chip in, the latter option seems reasonable enough. (A is just unacceptable, and B and C might seem like a wash but man, I can’t tell you how sick I am of hearing my friends who don’t have kids bitching about their tax money going toward schools they don’t use, which of course misses several points about how society works as a whole in the long run, but never mind, if me springing for hand sanitizer and pocket folders shuts them up, I’m on board.) Where was I? Right, the backpack, which actually was pretty full on Tuesday and yet still didn’t contain absolutely every item we had been instructed to provide. We might have been able to jam a few more things in, but then again our little guy would probably have barely been able to move with any more weight on his shoulders, so we decided it would be just as well to send multiple shipments to school over the course of the first week.

As you may have gleaned from some of my posts over the past year, kindergarten was not as easy for the little guy as we might have hoped it would be. There’s no question he’s a smart boy, he likes reading, loves science, prides himself on knowledge and will recite facts at the drop of a hat. He even has an affinity for rule-following that could (theoretically) be beneficial for a model student. But he lacks focus and discipline, and has almost no patience for practicing things, whether it’s something new and challenging or something so old hat that it’s boring. So, for example, writing the numeral 5 over and over and over again to fill up a sheet of wide ruled paper was not his idea of time well spent, and he would in response just zone out and not do the busywork at all. Understandable and easily sympathized with, but at the end of the day both his teachers and his parents are pretty much in agreement that he has to do the same work as all the other kids whether he likes it or not. But we spent most of the last school year not sure if we should be drilling into his head more strongly the idea of buckling down and doing the work, or if we should back off and let nature take its course, since he was barely five and all. We ended up with a kind of wavering bit-of-both approach that certainly didn’t feel like it accomplished anything.

It was frustrating for all of us, to say the least, but there’s reason for optimism now: the little guy is a year older and still isn’t the perfect picture of composure and self-control, but he’s getting there. My wife and I are prepared to get on top of the matter and stay on top of it from the outset, as opposed to feeling blindsided by it when it first came to our attention. And a couple of days into first grade, the little guy is at least reporting that he’s having fun and enjoying school, not wailing that he wished it were still summer vacation or begging us to let him stay home or anything remotely so dire. I’m sure things are going to ramp up quickly in the next few weeks in terms of in-school assignments and homework and whatnot, and it’s when the rubber meets the road that we’ll really see what’s what. But so far, so encouraging.

Meanwhile, the little girl and the bino have both started daycare two days a week, and that’s going well, too. We’ve started them at a center that’s new to us, because of the after-school busing options, or lack thereof, in the area. Let me back up. Last time our kids were in any kind of center was right around the time the bino was born, so almost a year and a half ago. The little guy was finishing his second year of Montessori (which was distressingly repetitive of the first year material, so that was a case of rapidly diminishing returns) and the little girl was not quite two years old and doing her thing in the free-form older toddler/pre-pre-school room. My wife went on maternity leave and everyone was at home for the summer, and when my wife went back to work we decided to give an in-home sitter a try for a while. There were a couple of justifications for this. First, if I’m remembering correctly, the day-care center would pro-rate for four days a week as opposed to five, or three days a week, but not two. And two was all we needed with my wife’s new-at-the-time (and still current) job. Day care center rates for newborn infants are also extremely expensive (and rightly so) and even with the multiple-kid discount we were looking at a steep monthly outlay. And finally, again if I remember correctly, the day care center where we had been did not have a before/afterschool program that would bus the little guy to and from kindergarten, which was something we couldn’t do without.

Hence, the in-home sitter, who would charge a flat hourly rate for watching all three of our kids, mostly the two little ones while the big brother was at school. She would also be able to walk the little ones up to the bus stop in the afternoon and meet the little guy and walk all of them back home to await my return home from work. All in all, this worked out pretty well for a year. I didn’t have to fight traffic to, from, and at the day care center after work, and I appreciated that. The bino now holds the cross-sibling record for least number of colds (a handful) and ear infections (zero!) in the first year of life. Other benefits I’m sure I’m forgetting!

But parts of it wore thin, too. The sitter had a son in between the little guy and little girl’s ages, and would bring him along once a week. My wife and I were asked beforehand if this would be ok and we said of course. But not long after we hired the sitter, she initiated divorce proceedings with her husband. I can only imagine what her son’s homelife was like from that point on, but it can’t have been pleasant, and he acted out a lot in ways that were never scary or dangerous to my kids but still caused some friction and made my life more difficult. And due to some early misunderstandings about the terms of employment, we wound up paying the taxes on the sitter’s paychecks out of our own pockets rather than deducted from her earnings, and that was grating. Once the bino had gotten old enough to no longer require newborn daycare rates, it actually cost us more money to keep everyone in the home-centered arrangement. And we figured both the little girl and her baby brother could use more socialization, new experiences, &c. So, late August being a logical enough transition point, we made the switch.

And as I say, that’s going well. The bino of course immediately got sick with some kind of persistent super-germ, the main symptoms of which seem to be coughing and sleeplessness, so that’s been a little rough. (He’s been taken to the pediatrician and it’s nothing serious, just one of those toddler bugs.) But he seems to like the daycare and, especially after an 18-month lifetime of chasing after and being excluded by his older sibs, the other toddlers quite a lot. The little girl also really likes being with other 3 and 4 year olds and doing new things, and she seems markedly more talkative (sassy, even!) after just a couple weeks of exposure to that environment, which is highly gratifying.

So that’s the state of play as of now: a new year of school (or “school”) for all is underway and we’re settling back into the familiar rhythms. Just in time, of course, for the annual autumnal avalanche of fall birthdays, Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas, and such. Wheeee!

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Changes in the re-telling (Amazing Spider-Man 2/X-Men: Days of Future past)

SPOILER ALERT BWOOP BWOOP BWOOP: This post is about a couple of movies that came out back in May of this year. It is also about the comic book storylines that inspired said films, which ran through issues of the source titles published literally decades ago. It contains spoilers for all of those. Odds are the spoiler warning is more relevant for the recent movies than the old comics, but I’m of the opinion that all are fair game at this point: four months is just about forever in internet time, and I’ve been thinking about these movies all summer while giving everyone else a chance to catch up. Grace period over. You’ve been warned!

Gwen Stacy didn’t have to die.

That’s the thought that kept occurring to me when I walked out of the theater after the final credits had rolled on Amazing Spider-Man 2. I liked the movie, on balance. It maintained a lot of the elements I thought really worked about the first installment of the franchise reboot, and progressed things along through the master plan for the trilogy-slash-expanded-cinematic-universe that we’re really only going to be able to judge on its merits when its completed (or at least substantially further developed) years from now. But for all the right buttons it pushed and notes it hit, the part of the movie that stood out in my mind was the sad fate of Peter Parker’s true love.

Really, it shouldn’t have been surprising at all. In the comics, sure enough, Gwen Stacy died. And much like in the second movie, it happened in the comics as collateral damage in a fight between Spider-Man and his nemesis the Green Goblin. It is probably one of the most pivotal moments in modern comics history, using a fairly broad definition of modern since it happened in 1973. But given that superhero comics started with Superman in 1938, there were thirty-some years of history before that and there have been forty-some since, so it’s as decent a boundary marker between “old” and “new” comics as any other. Better than most, many comics fans would argue, since the general characteristics of comics in the old days, the Golden and Silver Ages, were optimism and happy endings and the inevitable triumph of good over evil and all sorts of other things which are considered (rightly or wrongly is a debate which could take up another few thousand words some other time) kiddie stuff; whereas newer comics tend to be hyper-focused on appealing to mature tastes (again, all extremely subjective and debatable) with tropes like ambiguous morality, Pyrrhic victories, failure as commonplace as success, and so on. When Spider-Man’s arch-enemy caused the death of Spider-Man’s girlfriend, a tragedy which Spider-Man tried mightily to prevent and yet still failed to avoid, it was arguably the end of innocence for all of comics. It certainly was for Spider-Man, and for a long time it was a sacrosanct part of the character’s mythology, crucial to understanding his outlook. You couldn’t contemplate the real Spider-Man actually saving Gwen’s life any more than you could imagine Spider-Man still having a living, breathing Uncle Ben. Gwen dies, Peter tries but fails to save her, it’s ultimately the Green Goblin’s fault: these are all pieces of the canon.

Except … they didn’t have to be. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that I wasn’t just thinking that Gwen Stacy didn’t have to die in the third act of Amazing Spider-Man 2. Gwen Stacy didn’t have to die in the final pages of The Amazing Spider-Man #121, either. If you dig into the history a bit you’ll learn that Stan Lee, the living embodiment of Marvel Comics particularly in the early days through the 60’s, wrote almost ten years’ worth of Spider-Man comics from Peter Parker’s first appearance onward before finally stepping away as he became more focused on running the business aspects of his company rather than the purely creative output. In all that time, yes, Spider-Man was defined by his “with great power comes great responsibility” ethos, inspired by the guilt and sadness at having failed to act once and contributed to the chain of events that led to his beloved uncle’s murder. You won’t hear me arguing that Spider-Man still works without Uncle Ben’s death, which is about as intrinsic to the concept as the explosion of Krypton is to Superman and the fatal mugging of the Waynes is to Batman. For eleven years, Spider-Man had a perfectly good personal tragedy in his past and zero dead girlfriends, and he was a strong enough character to become the flagship icon of Marvel Comics.

Which in turn meant that when Gerry Conway took over as regular writer after Stan Lee (and Steve Ditko) gave birth to Spider-Man and steered him through his meteoric ascent, he was stepping into some incredibly big shoes and he felt tremendous pressure to maintain the quality of storytelling in the Spider-Man title while also making his own mark on the book. And Conway literally thought to himself, “What’s the most shocking thing I can do, to shake things up and signal that I’m more than just a steward of Stan Lee’s previous work?” Which is how he hit upon the idea of killing off a major character to raise the stakes of Spidey’s feud with the Green Goblin, and ultimately Gwen Stacy became the sacrificial cast member.

It was a choice, and I’m not saying Conway didn’t have every right to make it. It was consistent with the Green Goblin’s character to have him strike at Spider-Man through his personal life. It was thematically in keeping with the established motif of Spider-Man having the worst luck of any superhero. It was narratively viable, but it wasn’t inevitable. It wasn’t what the Spider-Man story had been steadily building toward. It was a choice rooted in its essentially arbitrary nature. The end goal was to shock the regular readers, by steering into the unexpected, and in that it completely succeeded. But to say that Spider-Man isn’t Spider-Man without the death of Gwen Stacy is just demonstrably false. She didn’t have to die, she just did.

I’d be lying if I said I didn’t appreciate it when the makers of comics-derived movies refer to certain touchstones of the source material, especially when those reference points are good. And don’t get my contrariness wrong, either; whether or not killing off Gwen was a necessity, the storyline itself isn’t just a classic for the what-happened factor, it’s genuinely good storytelling full of operatic emotion rendered in fantastic Gil Kane/John Romita Sr. art. But, at the same time, I’m perfectly all right with the movies deviating from the source material as well. In fact, when it better serves the needs of cinema (as opposed to serialized monthly installments of graphics and prose) I prefer the movies to take liberties, condensing or expanding or remixing at will. And certainly the makers of all the Spider-Man movies have felt at liberty to do just that all along. Back when Sam Raimi made his Spider-Man movie, he wove in the whole Spider-Man and Green Goblin and Spider-Man love interest battle, but he used Mary Jane Watson rather than Gwen Stacy (presumably since, at the time, in the comics Peter and MJ were married and she had over the course of almost two decades replaced Gwen as the one true love interest) and, for that matter, he had MJ nearly fall to her death but allowed Spider-Man to successfully rescue her at the last moment. Marc Webb, on the other hand, was working with the Peter and Gwen love story but skipped over Norman Osborn as the Green Goblin to jump straight into his son (and one of Peter’s best friends) Harry in the glider-riding, bomb-chucking villain. None of those alterations stood out to me as egregious violations of the spirit of the source material.

And so it was that I found myself during the climax of Amazing Spider-Man 2 nursing a tiny yet insistent hope that maybe, because she didn’t have to die, that Gwen Stacy actually wouldn’t die. Slavish devotion to canon was not absolute, obviously. And real-life couple Emma Stone and Andrew Garfield had great on-screen chemistry. Honestly, I always preferred Mary Jane to Gwen in the comics, partly because Gwen died before I was born and I grew up reading MJ stories, and partly because even when I went back and read the old Gwen stories she seemed kind of boring and bland and unappealing compared to MJ. Emma Stone’s portrayal, and the fresh spins on the character inherent in the scripts, made me really like Gwen Stacy as a character for the first time. Why would they bail on a good thing? Why not explore new territory completely uncharted in the comics? Let the movies invent their own reality!

But I should have known better. For goodness sake, they basically put Emma Stone in the exact same outfit as it was drawn and colored in Amazing #121. And then they condensed Peter’s mourning over her into a late-reel montage, and included a brief epilogue of Peter finally getting over the guilt and grief enough to put the reds-and-blues back on and go out and stop the Rhino from rampaging through downtown. As if it were vitally important to get Peter into that position of having lost his parents, lost his uncle, lost his best friend and lost his first love but still dedicated to being Spider-Man by the end of Part 2 to set the stage for Part 3 (or for Sinister Six or whatever Sony manages to release next). Again, nobody owed me anything other than what I got when I paid for my ticket, they made their decisions on writing Gwen out of the saga (or maybe they had no decision to make because Stone wouldn’t sign on for a third installment, I don’t know), and so it goes. But, it’s disappointing nevertheless.

It’s a little bit apples-and-oranges, but I’m going to go ahead and segue into the X-Men: Days of Future Past movie at this point because it provides some pretty solid evidence for my basic thesis here, which is that the movies and can and probably should not just make superficial changes to the source material but really feel free to take things in new directions. The comics storyline which inspired the film was mostly about the Kitty Pryde character, since she was the one whose consciousness traveled back in time to prevent a mutant-human species war-fomenting assassination, and featured some memorable scenes of future-Wolverine, including his demise at the hands of the Sentinels, literally:

Whereas the movie is mostly about Wolverine doing the consciousness-time-travel trick, and Kitty gets relegated to a minor supporting role. It’s a potentially irksome change, depending on how attached you are to the original comics, but I get it in terms of Hugh Jackman selling a lot more tickets than Ellen Page. Still, because it was a purely mercenary edit, it’s not terribly compelling or interesting.

Much more intriguing, to me, was the way that Singer really changed the whole thrust and point of the storyline. The general framework of unintended consequences of political terrorism is in place in both versions of the narrative, comics and film, but in the comics it’s a relatively simple matter of the X-Men stopping the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants, led by Mystique, from accomplishing their goal in the usual superhero manner: lots of punching is involved.

In the movie, the climax is really all about the parallel battles for Magneto’s and Mystique’s souls, and whether or not either of them still has room for redemption. Magneto’s not even in the comics storyline, and Mystique is a fairly one-dimensional plot-point-oriented villain. Those comics were released in 1980 and since then Mystique has become a more and more popular character, with more backstory and personality sketched in and even eventually getting her own self-titled series where she got in adventures as a kind of mutant superspy with questionable loyalties. And (stay with me here) those solo comics came after Mystique’s profile was enormously raised by being played by Rebecca Romijn in the first wave of X-Men movies. So by the time the reboot wave of movies came along, Mystique had a fanbase and it was only logical (and, yeah, again, somewhat mercenary) to invent a previously non-existent role for the character in the origins of the pre-X-Men and make her a sympathetic sister figure to Professor X who only turns to the dark side reactively.

But the payoff for Mystique’s arc in First Class really comes in Days of Future Past, when rather than being thwarted by fisticuffs Mystique turns away from the assassination by choice; Xavier talks her down rather than beating her down. And then again, she doesn’t walk into Xavier’s outstretched arms, and back to the side of the angels, she simply walks away. It’s wonderfully ambiguous (Jennifer Lawrence sells the hell out of the unresolvable inner turmoil of her character) and it has me dying with curiosity to see Age of Apocalypse and what they’re going to do with Mystique there. But most importantly, it’s completely different from anything the comics ever did with Mystique (to my knowledge). It doesn’t refer back to any previous source material, and that’s totally irrelevant because it makes for good, gripping storytelling.

I don’t know, maybe Emma Stone’s Gwen Stacy is a lot more interesting than comic book Gwen Stacy, but still not all that interesting as a character overall. And maybe she had nowhere else to go in the planned Spider-Man cinematic universe, or any Spider-Man story. Maybe there will be some retroactively self-justifying payoff for her death in a future film in the franchise. Maybe Mystique is simply a more complex, more dynamic character with greater potential, and that’s why they were confident enough to take a leap into untried narrative territory with her. I don’t know. Maybe in another Spider-reboot or three, when the comic book death of Gwen Stacy is fifty or sixty or more years in the past, someone will reinterpret her character without the too-good-for-this-world dying young angle. I can only hope.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Turning corners

I always find it strangely gratifying when things kind of naturally align in a way that makes a pleasing amount of sense and allows me to feel like I more or less have my temporal-cognitive bearings straight (a vanishingly rare phenomenon these days). So we went on our biannual summer vacation to the beach and I took a week off from the blog, and then I spent the week after that catching up on detailing the various highlights and whatnot of said vacation, and then having dispensed with all that it was Labor Day weekend and now it’s September and the first day of school for the little guy and I am back at work and it feels like there’s been a nice, cleanly demarcated break between summer and fall, if not in standard astronomical terms of equinoctial points and such, then at least by way of The Feels.

So of course this week is going to be a scorcher; after an incredibly mild summer of 80’s temps and low humidity, now we’re in for the usual muggy 90’s that we should rightly expect living in a dressed-up drained swamp (or working in same; technically I suppose I live more in the swamp-adjacent foothills or something).

That’s really all I wanted to do today, is take a moment to observe and acknowledge the pivot-point in time. I will have more to say about the first day of school, and the little girl and little bino’s recently begun experiences at a new daycare as well, at the usual appointed time (Thursday). For now, I just need to meditate mindfully on the office air conditioning in order to be able to carry it with me in my mind when I have to walk through the steamy miasma to the train in a couple hours.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

So many layers

I counted them all up, and from the time the family left our home on the afternoon of Saturday the 16th until we returned from vacation in the early evening of Sunday the 24th, the little guy watched The LEGO Movie seven and a half times. We split the roadtrip down across two days, and he watched it twice in the car on the first day and once again on the second. Then he watched it twice at the beach house, once by himself and once for a movie night with his sister and grandparents. (For the record, the grands were highly amused by it, as if the all-ages appeal needed any more evidence.) The last two and a half viewings were all on the marathon return trip this past Sunday; for some reason after watching it twice he just wanted to start in the middle and watch to the end, and at that point I was not inclined to argue.

I had insisted that we bring other DVD's to watch in the car (per necessity) and/or at the beach (optional), and both the little guy and little girl complied and made enough selections to bring a round half-dozen along. Other than LEGO, they were all Disney/Pixar joints: the first two Toy Stories, Frozen, the first Cars, and a Mickey Mouse Clubhouse compilation. And some of those got some play, at that. Toy Story was in the mix on the way down, and Toy Story 2 on the way back. Frozen also got a spin on the very first day of the initial roadtrip, plus a grandparent-attended movie night of its own, as well. (Yes, my in-laws set aside two separate evenings on vacation to watch movies their grandson and granddaughter respectively talk about a lot but they had never seen. I thought that was sweet.) Poor Cars and Mickey Mouse might as well have stayed home, but see yesterday's post re: overpacking the entertainment options.

But clearly nothing came close to The LEGO Movie's dominance in the rotation. And I specified that it was the little guy watching it all those times because, in fact, the mid-week daytime viewing was for him alone, while the little girl was napping, and she fell asleep in the car during one of the last viewings, too. really this post is about how my son is obsessed with The LEGO Movie, not in the casual-ironic way I refer to myself as being obsessed with certain things but in a more literally fixated kind of way.

And here's the real kicker, the reason why I think this is worth going over despite the fact that, ever since home video was a thing, kids have been wearing out movies on infinite repeat. Three of those seven and a half viewings over the course of a week were with the directors-and-actors commentary track turned on. I am not even joking a little bit. The second viewing on the day one trip, the mid-week afternoon viewing, and the second viewing on the return trip. The first time, the little guy stumbled onto the commentary track by accident. But he was immediately drawn into it. And the second and third times were completely by choice. He thinks the commentary track is the greatest thing ever.

I suppose on some level this makes perfect sense. The three things he loves best in life right now are watching The LEGO Movie, playing with Legos, or talking about The LEGO Movie. So watching the movie with the commentary track on kind of combines items one and three, there. The little guy has always had that tendency when he gets into something to really immerse himself in it, in the minutiae of deep understanding, so listening to the people who made the movie talk about making it is bound to be something he gets no small amount of satisfaction from. He's seen the movie in its natural form enough times now that he doesn't need the dialogue and soundtrack in order to follow it at this point, and the commentary version lets him keep gorging on it without it getting stale. And it is a pretty good commentary as these things go, with both directors and a good cross-section of the cast; the directors are geeky and technically-oriented, while the actors (Chris Pratt, Alison Brie, Will Arnett and Charlie Day) keep things pretty funny. Most of the actors' jokes kind of sail over the little guy's head, but he was thrilled to learn little secrets about the film as pointed out by the directors, visual jokes in the corner of the frame that really go by too fast to notice unless they're pointed out to you and so forth.

But still. He's FIVE. He'll be six in a week, ok, sure, but who ever heard of a six-year-old nerding out for the commentary track for a movie? I love movies, I buy DVDs for my own personal library, and I hardly ever turn on the commentary tracks myself. It never in a million years would have occurred to me to point my kid towards the commentary on anything. So it was kind of weirdly great to just bear (audio) witness, from the front seat of the car, as he serendipitously discovered it for himself and was immediately so taken with it.

And I'm trying, I really am, to just leave it at that. It's all-too-tempting to revel in the thought of a budding cineaste taking shape in the form of my own offspring, that as my son gets older and continues to broaden his horizons he'll also continue to get more and more deeply interested in movie-making, the nuts and bolts of what makes them tick, all the intricacies that I get a kick out of studying and analyzing and breaking down &c. It would be deeply satisfying to be able to go back and forth with him on such subjects at great length and in exhaustive detail. But I know that's pure projection (pun maybe like 25% intended) and the truth is he's not so much intrigued by behind-the-scenes workings of all movies or even certain kinds of movies as he is one very specific movie that has its hooks deep into him at the moment, and by Christmas he might be totally enthralled by some age-appropriate collectible game or some eye-crossingly esoteric science subject. It's happened before, it'll happen again, the carousel goes round and round.