Monday, April 30, 2012

Sequestered

I upgraded to a smartphone recently, and can’t quite recall if I mentioned it around here or not. I suspect not, because the circumstances were a bit of a letdown. My wife had decided that the two of us should upgrade our respective cellphones, and we went to the Verizon store in town, and found out when they looked up our account that I was long overdue for the hardware upgrade, whereas my wife is not technically due until August. So while she had been looking forward to getting a new smartphone and I was going along with no real compulsion of my own, we ended up leaving the store with only one smartphone, for me. It would have been an exorbitant amount of money to upgrade my wife ahead of schedule, so we simply marked our calendar with her eligibility date and vowed to return as soon as said moment arrived.

I’m just not much of an early adopter gadgethead, but don’t get me wrong, the new smartphone is really nice and I’ve been enjoying it. But the additional irony is this: I’ve had it for two or three weeks, and yet as of today I am not allowed to have my cell phone turned on at work. I can have the device with me, as long as it’s completely powered down. New policy, continuously in effect from here until forevermore, no exceptions. So my smartphone is presently taking up space in the bottom of my work bag.

The new policy is another ramification of the construction they’ve been doing in our office to make this an up-to-code secure workspace which would allow us to have terminals that connect to the classified DoD network right at our desks, instead of having to go downstairs to a vaguely mausoleum-like chamber with no windows and a perpetually musty chill in the air. So of course in theory I like this plan. But apparently the official policy is that no one is allowed to have transmission-capable devices inside a secure workspace, and that includes cell phones which are powered on. I understand the anti-espionage implications, and I suppose they have to draw the line somewhere, even if the demarcation they’ve chose seems a bit excessive. But ours not to reason why and all that. Really it just means that my wife and my kids’ daycare need to have my desk’s landline number as the main method for reaching me, and I won’t be able to get texts throughout the day. It’s more annoying that anything, and certainly doesn’t have me so outraged that I’m considering any radical employment moves.

And it could be worse, I suppose. There were some rampant rumors last week about how even powered-down cellphones were going to be verboten, and anyone who accidentally carried their phone all the way to the suite door would just have to leave it right there in the hallway. I wasn’t overly perturbed about being forgetful, but I did wonder where else I could leave my phone. Leaving it in my car would cut me off for not just the workday but the time I was on the VRE, and there have been times in the afternoon where inclement weather delays have prompted me to call my wife to work out an alternate plan for picking up the children from daycare, plus on one occasion in the morning the entire train was offloaded halfway down the route due to non-functioning signals which had been stripped of their wires by copper thieves overnight, and I called my beloved to kindly fetch me from the wilderness of Burke. At least if my phone is with me but turned off then if I urgently need to make a phone call I can always carry it out of the building, power up, and dial someone from the sidewalk. The thought of being denied even that recourse seemed a little closer to outrageous. But, as it all turns out, those were wildly unsubstantiated bits of gossip. So things are weird, but not that weird. Not yet, anyway, you never really know what the next week is going to bring.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Other worlds than this (The Cabin in the Woods, continued)

At one point in the early going of The Cabin in the Woods, one of my buddies (not Clutch, the other one, let’s call him Slick) half-complained/half-complimented “You can tell this is a Joss Whedon script because no teenager talks like that, let alone everyone in the same circle of friends.” He had a point (notwithstanding the fact that I believe the protagonist-victims are supposed to be college kids in their very early 20’s) but I simply answered by saying “The writer creates his ideal world.” Slick of course recognized that quote, as it’s part of an answer Kevin Smith gives (in An Evening With Kevin Smith, which we’ve both seen because Slick owns it and I’ve borrowed his copy) to basically the same question, why is it OK to write unrealistically over-stylized dialogue: because Kevin Smith talks that way himself and wishes everyone talked that way, and making movies is essentially opening windows on entirely invented worlds.

Chekov's Stainless Steel Travel Bong

Well above and far beyond a world where jocks and stoners and soulful chicks are all effortlessly erudite, there’s an audacious amount of worldbuilding going on in The Cabin in the Woods. Spoilers, spoilers, everywhere, it’s time to overthink! The most obvious difference between the nominally real world and the world in Cabin is that in Cabin’s world, monsters are very real. Every kind of monster from dismemberment goblins to colossal malevolent Elder Gods simply exist and always have, theoretically pre-dating humanity itself. This is not an Earth where folklore is just a bunch of stories but a certain amount of mad science creates something that approximates vampire legends, nor is it one in which a twisted but enterprising serial killer consciously emulates the motifs of traditional witches. This is an Earth of primal horrors taken completely at face value. And I have no beef with that whatsoever, of course, huge fan of things fantastical and impossible that I am. In fact it probably counts as one of the great twists of the movie’s metagaming of the genre. The very first scene of the movie features not the protagonist-victims but their soon-to-be tormentors, yet everything in that scene is screamingly mundane: two guys in white collar shirts and ties, getting vending machine coffee, talking about baby-proofing a house, against a backdrop of bland modern office interiors. The fact that the protagonist-victims are being set up becomes abundantly clear, so the audience as expected is going to be making guesses about what exactly the nature of the set-up is. I compared notes with Clutch and Slick afterwards and we all agreed that our initial expectations were pretty similar: maybe it was all going to turn out to be some kind of elaborate hoax for a new kind of reality show, and the early victims would turn up alive and well in the end, or maybe it the deaths were all-too-real but it was all being staged for the benefit of people who loved horror so much they wanted an endless supply of snuff films with fake supernatural themes and special effects. In other words, we all assumed that the things we were seeing onscreen were taking place in a real-esque world like our own. But that’s the twist, the deaths are real and people are being killed as sacrifices to vengeful and evil gods below, not in the sense of some deluded crazy people believing in non-existent demons and acting on those beliefs but in a totally straightforward and literal manner, real sacrifices for real entities.

But there’s another side-effect to this alternate-world approach which I find even more interesting. I mentioned already that I cannot wait to re-watch Cabin to catch things I missed the first time (not to mention pausing to see things that were impossible to ingest in real time, like reading every line on the betting pool whiteboard or noting the contents of every cell in the terror-menagerie) but another reason I want to watch it again is to confirm something which I’m only about 95% sure of: The Cabin in the Woods takes place in a world without horror movies.

If you’ve heard anybody else talking about The Cabin in the Woods, you might have noticed comparisons made to the Scream movies, anointing Cabin as a worthy successor, etc. There’s a fair point to be made their because both are post-modern self-aware horror movies/love letters to horror movies, but really Cabin is almost the opposite of Scream. (Full disclosure: I’ve only seen the first 2 in the Scream series, so maybe there’s more overlap with the latter installments, but I doubt it.) Scream is an example of the hypothetical cases I was alluding to above, in that it could ostensibly take place in our real world. There’s nothing supernatural in Scream, just a frighteningly clever but ultimately human serial killer. There’s an acknowledged and deliberate construction of horror tropes, but in Cabin these are based on ancient mythology and the re-interpretation of archetypes, and in Scream it’s all explicitly riffing on the movies, to the point that characters in Scream constantly say things like “Oh, this is just like that part in all the movies where somebody goes off on their own after saying ‘I’ll be right back!’ and then is never seen again!” The justifying internal logic of Scream is that the protagonist-victims there are teenagers, full of arrogance and presumed immortality; they should know better than to go into the dark basement alone after watching all those horror movies, but then again horror movies aren’t real and it’s cool to laugh in the face of danger and tempt fate. This unfailingly proves their undoing and adds to the body count.

So compare that to Cabin, where one of the key moments is when Curt makes it back to the titular vacation abode and takes charge of the group, telling everyone they have to barricade the doors and windows and more importantly stay together. Which would be an opportune moment for Marty, the wise fool and most self-aware voice of reason, to say “Right, don’t split up like dummies in a cheap slasher flick” and yet, he doesn’t. But cut to the manipulators behind the scenes, and they dispense some mind-altering gas that makes Curt say “Wait, no, that isn’t right … we need to split up, we can cover more entrances faster that way.” And nobody argues with him, at which point it seems like a shame that the mind-altering gas isn’t available to the audience, where the suspension of disbelief strains terribly at the question: jeebus, haven’t any of these people ever seen a horror movie?!?! What I’m doing here is making the serious argument that that is exactly what the movie would have us believe. If the protagonist-victims had ever sat through a single slasher flick, they would never have split up at that point, gas or no gas; but they do split up, ergo they have never seen a slasher flick. And the only way to avoid such a ubiquitous cultural element is if it doesn’t exist. Cabin takes place in a world where monsters exist and horror films don’t.

This is fascinating to me because it’s very similar to the situational paradox of comic book universes: do they have comic books there? If superheroes and supervillains and gods and aliens and lost civilizations &c. &c. are real, as they are within the context of those stories, then what appeal would fake stories about the same have to the denizens of that world? It’s been addressed in various different ways. In Marvel Comics, it’s been posited almost since the beginning that superhero comics would still have appeal to a mass audience familiar with the real thing, but there are slight differences due to levels of access: the publicity-friendly Fantastic Four has an authorized licensing deal, whereas the more secretive Spider-Man and X-Men get turned into much more lurid and sensationalized fictional characters on the newsstand. In Watchmen, first there were the same WWII comics our world had, Superman and Batman and whatnot, then there were real mystery men inspired by those fictional characters, and then superhero comics died out and kids in the alternate 80’s of that world read comicbooks about pirates, mostly. Smallville works around the fact that Clark in the early 21st century is destined to become Superman at some point down the road, which precludes a competing fictional version of Superman dating back to 1938, which was the genesis point of American superhero comics … so in Clark’s world there are superhero comics but the most famous one is entitled Warrior Angel (seemingly not published by either of the Big Two) and obviously draws on much older cultural traditions.

(By the by, speaking of angels, it’s somewhat implicit in drawing a world predicated on evil elder gods requiring bloody appeasement lest they wipe out humanity that YHWH is kind of a non-factor. After the movie, Clutch asked if there were any major horror fiends that didn’t figure into the all-hell-breaks-loose finale. There were zombies, werewolves, mutants, giant snakes and spiders, vampires, robots, clowns, an unmistakable homage to Pinhead … Clutch was pretty sure every base had been covered. But I immediately said “devils” and he acknowledged I was right. Again, maybe with benefit of a pause button I’d be able to spot a forked tail or red skin or goat horns on some background character, but then again probably not. I suppose you can’t have devils without angels, and you can’t have angels without God, and Cabin is pretty starkly a God-free world. So points for consistency there.)

Really, if you think about it, it’s just the ultimate logical conclusion. What ideal world would a writer create in order to tell the story of his horror movie? A world without any horror movies, where the writer gets to be the trailblazer and tell a story utterly without antecedent. Yet at the same time, without a long tradition of horror movies to draw on and the skeleton of tropes to hang fresh meat upon, you couldn’t have The Cabin in the Woods at all. That’s the beauty of playing around with alternate worlds, though: often you end up with the best of both.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

More than an earful

I realized, belatedly, that I should have just dived right into dissecting the radness that is The Cabin in the Woods yesterday, because it was Geek-Out Wednesday and all. Then I could have led today, Offspring Update Thursday, with the bit about the roving Hello Kitty balloon and then segued right back into Cabin again from there. Ah, hindsight. So for my own arbitrary aesthetic-organizational reasons I will delay further discussion of Whedon and Goddard’s instant classic until tomorrow, and give today over solely to my children.

And they are … good? Pretty good. The little girl continues to struggle with ear infections but I am fervently hoping that the end is in sight. It seems a near-certainty she will get tubes surgically inserted in her ears sooner rather than later, it’s just a question of when (barring a sudden and miraculous change in the overall healthfulness of those beleaguered little bits of her). And on the other hand, the list of ill humours circulating through her daycare center has been not just reduced but taken down completely, which means (possibly, hopefully) fewer sources of infection to begin with. We shall see.

Also did I mention that she has transitioned from the younger infant room to the older infant room? She seems to be enjoying the new environs, and the major impact on me is that I no longer need to put on booties or take off my shoes to enter the room where I pick her up. I admit the increased convenience is nice, even as it’s another one of those things where now that I don’t have to do it for her, it’s one of those things I’ll likely never have to do again at all, because we’re pretty sure we’ve reached the end of the child-producing phase.

At any rate, the little guy continues to dote on his baby sister in charmingly weird ways. Yesterday I carried her into his daycare room, where all of the children were gathered around the teacher for storytime. I waited until the book was finished before even trying to extricate the little guy, at which point he was open to the idea even as the other children were lobbying to be read a second story. The little guy interrupted their various inquiries to ask, “Um, do you guys want to come and see the baby? Because you can, if you want.” So he’s proud of showing her off, and that is sweet. He also likes playing with her, even if he still has a hard time grasping what is an appropriate level of physical play for a one-year-old. As much fun as a washcloth tug-of-war can be (for both of them, as it succeeds wildly in giving little guy and little girl both the giggles) it’s a bit dangerous in a bathtub full of water when the older sibling is more than capable of yanking the younger right onto her face and into a drowning hazard. Clearly parental supervision is still a crucial need around these parts.

But yeah, even testing their unevenly matched strength against one another in the face of deadly danger, they are just cute and sweet and good and I’m grateful for them. Make no mistake, the morning after I saw Cabin in the Woods I looked my son in the eye and told him in no uncertain terms that if her ever finds an old diary describing scary awful things, he is emphatically NOT to read any Latin post-scripts aloud. I figured such a warning would go in one of my daughter’s germ-catchers and out the other, so I settled for some extra-fierce hugging at bedtime instead.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Associative Properties of Lampshades (The Cabin in the Woods)

Here, yet another way in which life imitates art, and comedy and horror intersect: this past weekend I went to the movies with a couple of buddies to see The Cabin in the Woods. The main narrative of the movie … no, wait, one of the two main parallel narratives (yeah, it’s that kind of movie, which of course meant I ate it up) is a very direct homage to a specific kind of slasher flick, but the movie as a whole is a love letter to horror movies of all types and traditions. As such there are a few brief nods to Japanese horror, the very first of which prompted me to lean over to my buddy Clutch and whisper “I hate J-horror” although what I actually meant was “J-horror is particularly effective at creeping me right the hell out” (which of course he very well knows because back when we used to carpool together, we both saw The Ring separately and proceeded to spend hours discussing it to pass time on the road). Said J-horror nod involved a shot of a typical unquiet Asian ghostgirl floating menacingly over the desks of uniformed elementary school children.

Meanwhile, back at home, we are now about a week and a half out from the little girl’s birthday party, which means the mylar balloons are losing some of their helium lift. The regular-sized ones in the shapes of flowers and stars are doing all right, actually, but the oversized one in the shape of Hello Kitty is on its way towards its demise, due in no small part to the fact that the little guy considers the balloon to be either a punching bag or body pillow depending on his mood. With that much rough treatment the Hello Kitty balloon also came away from the ribbon tethering it to the rest of the bouquet, or anything else, and so its been roaming somewhat freely around the house. And thus a couple of nights ago my wife and I turned off all the lights throughout the house as we made our way up to the bedroom, and arrived in a darkness only slightly broken up by streetlight filtered through the blinds to see … Hello Kitty hovering in our bathroom doorway. Not exactly a ghostgirl, but definitely both female and Japanese, and unquestionably creepy, moreso for the coincidental echoing of the movie.

But, again, I like horror and on some level I like being harmlessly creeped out, so I can’t complain too much. I definitely have no complaints about The Cabin in the Woods itself, because it was simply fantastic. I’m reasonably sure that when it comes out on Blu-ray I’ll have to get a copy, because I’m convinced that it will greatly reward repeat viewings. You may or may not have heard that it is a movie which contains some really exquisite twists, like Fight Club or The Usual Suspects, and that’s usually reason enough to watch something at least a second and possibly third time, to appreciate the first-act clues once you know how the whole thing ends. But in addition to that there’s the love letter aspect I mentioned earlier. Cabin in the Woods is super-dense with references to the history of horror cinema and I was more or less overwhelmed by them on the big screen. Even when I tried to pick one out to focus on, it was often offscreen again too fast for me to get a fix on. So I look forward to picking the whole thing apart at home with the assistance of a remote control pause button.

I’m positive that I could go on and on and on about the movie for at least 5000 words or so; I could have sat on this a little longer and just done Cabin in the Woods Week all next week. But I’ll try to stick to the highlights, one of which has to do with lampshading, as I alluded to in the title of this post.

Lampshading is a term writers use for acknowledging the ridiculousness of certain elements of a story (or tropes of a genre) within the story itself. It supposedly originates from theater, and the idea that if there is an object on stage which doesn’t belong there (imagine a scene set in an English drawing room acted out on a stage with two wingback chairs and an elephant) it will be distracting, not only for not belonging but due to the fact that the actors on stage are pretending it’s not there, which creates some insurmountable cognitive dissonance in the audience members’ minds. If you put a lampshade on the elephant’s head, you’re not only no longer ignoring the elephant, you’re drawing more attention to it, BUT (so the theory goes) it’s just enough attention to convey a message to the audience, roughly “yes, there’s an elephant on stage, we know it and you know, let’s call it a lamp and move on.” For example, hearken back to the original X-Men movie from 2000, and the conversation on the Blackbird en route to the Big Throwdown. Wolverine says, in reference to the matching black leather uniforms the whole team has donned, “I can’t believe you go out in public like this” and Cyclops retorts “What would you prefer? Yellow spandex?” Which, ha ha, because Wolverine in the comic books does in fact wear yellow spandex, but the fact is that the black leather is still silly, and that silliness remains unresolved, but a character in the story has addressed that fact, which means the audience doesn’t have to sit there wondering why mutant chromosomes contain no fashion sense genes and can just go on with the business of enjoying the story. Lampshading allows the writer to tacitly address the audience and say “Look, I don’t expect you to swallow this as if it makes perfect sense. I certainly don’t think it makes perfect sense. But I am asking you to swallow it for the sake of this being that kind of story, and for a potential payoff later on, fair enough?” Instead of feeling like their intelligence has been insulted, the audience feels appreciated.

Right, so, Cabin in the Woods, and deeper and deeper into Spoiler Territory. There’s a lot of lampshading going on in the first and second act. The premise of the movie is that a group of college kids have been chosen to live out an archetypal horror movie plot, with all of their potential actions scientifically modeled and then influenced accordingly by a shadowy organization behind the scenes. It’s a clever meta-conceit, since horror movies have a notorious rap for depicting behavior which no human being would ever engage in. If you heard a weird noise at night in a strange place, would you go looking for it by yourself, or maybe ask at least one other person to come with you? Cabin in the Woods acknowledges this by having the secret manipulators do various things, from doctoring a girl’s hair dye to spiking the drugs and beer to pumping in pheromones, all to chemically induce bad decision making in the protagonist victims. But it barely counts as pseudo-science explanation, certainly not in a way that stands up to scrutiny. Then again, that’s not the point. If you’re looking for a hyper-realistic deconstruction of horror tropes, this is not that movie. But in terms of a paper-thin explanation for otherwise incomprehensible behavior being better than none at all, it’s a cheap and flimsy lampshade over a blinking red bulb.

More to the point, it gets the audience on the movie’s side. And then (wisely, I think) the flick abandons any pretense of lampshading at all. The manipulators operate out of a high-tech facility which has a seemingly limitless interdisciplinary budget, and the third act essentially hinges on the surviving protagonists turning the tables on their tormentors. I can’t possibly overstate this: I think the moment that justifies the entire existence of the movie around it is the moment when the manipulators go from offense to defense. It is a Fuck Yeah moment par excellence. It also makes absolutely no sense whatsoever.

Seriously, I know I already gave the Spoilers warning, but if you ever want to feel the impact of this moment yourself go ahead and skip to the next paragraph. So Dana and Marty have jumped out of the frying pan and into the fire and are cornered in a small control booth inside the hi-tech facility with the heavily armed security forces closing in. Fortunately there are banks of elevators surrounding the control booth, and one huge red panic button on the main panel labeled SYSTEM PURGE. Dana hits the button, all the elevator doors open, and every monster ever imprisoned by the manipulators for use in their horror scenarios comes pouring out, tearing through the security force and then proceeding to rampage through the facility slaughtering everyone they find, while Dana and Marty hunker down in the booth. The carnage is glorious and the comeuppance for the manipulators is cathartic. The spot-the-references opportunities fly fast and furious and hilarious; by the time a staffer gets impaled by a unicorn it’s pretty clear this is supposed to be more fun than scary (to say nothing of the payoff for the merman joke). I cannot remember a more brain-exploding-with-geek-joy moment I’ve had at the movies in I don’t know how long. And yet. AND YET. SYSTEM PURGE??? Are you kidding me??? There are approximately a bajillion reasons why the very existence of a system purge function in the facility is a terrible, suicidal idea (as the movie goes on to demonstrate at length) and, by my reckoning, exactly zero good reasons to include such a button in the control booth in the first place. Yet there it is, intrinsic to the very nut of the movie. That is brazen. That is the movie spitting in its hand and then slapping logic right in the face. And there is no attempt to lampshade it at all, no one even questions the wisdom of a system purge button, let alone makes any attempt to explain it. But as I said, at that point in the movie it really doesn’t matter. The audience is totally on the movie’s side and when the movie offers up the big shiny red button the only reasonable reaction is “YES! PUSH IT PUSH IT PUSH IT!” So maybe, in a way, it is lampshaded; it’s covered by the lampshades that were hung up earlier. At a certain point the writer no longer needs to keep saying “Now I know this is also ridiculous, but …” The trust with the audience has already been established, and anything done with a flagrant disregard for realism is done that way for a good reason. Like the undiluted awesome of seeing buzzsaw-scorpion construction bots and psycho clowns working side by side to slaughter as many people as possible.

And then it’s all downhill from there, not in a diminishment of quality way but simply in that there’s no way to top that pivotal sequence. The movie does indeed have a downer ending, and not an ambiguous one but literally “and then the world ended and everybody died”, although even that is handled in such a spirit of reveling in the madness of it all that it didn’t feel like as much of a downer as it could have.

There’s another point I wanted to make about the internal logic of the movie but this post is already verging on overlong and that other point isn’t going to come out any shorter, I suspect. To be continued, then!

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Mmmm, that’s good spaghetti (The Good, the Bad and the Ugly)

So as it happened I ended up watching The Good, the Bad and the Ugly last week, after I had finished re-reading The Drawing of the Three. As I’ve mentioned before, I’m embarrassingly deficient in my prior consumption of westerns (the grand total number of movies in the genre I’ve seen now is four, adding this one to Unforgiven, The Magnificent Seven and Blazing Saddles) so it was instructive to see a full-length feature with young Clint Eastwood in full cowboy regalia, which is supposed to be the visual template for Roland Deschain, the Gunslinger. Of course, as a Stephen King character, Roland is a lot more talkative in both dialogue and internal monologue than Eastwood’s Man With No Name, but that’s a separate issue altogether.

I watched the fullest of full-length versions of the movie, too, the three-hour 2004 Special Edition DVD. This on the heels of having watched La Dolce Vita, so it’s getting to the point where three hours is starting to feel like the standard running time for a film. But unlike La Dolce Vita, not once did I think The Good, the Bad and the Ugly could have improved the end result with a less-is-more approach. Even the meandering beginning, which seems to move like molasses toward getting the central plot established and underway, ends up being critically important to the final resolution of the story, and even before that all becomes apparent it’s still a cinematic feast with badass characters doing badass things against badass backdrops. And then things start to pick up speed.

It really is an amazing movie. I’d heard people say that it’s one of the greats in the genre (if not one of the greats of all time, bar none) but I have a lamentable tendency to be disappointed by overhyping like that. The Good, the Bad and the Ugly lives up to its own hype. Eastwood is iconic, but Lee Van Cleef (as “the Bad”, who gets called “Angel Eyes” in English translation but was “Sentenza” in the original Italian script, which is so much cooler) and Eli Wallach (playing Tuco, aka “the Ugly”) more than hold their own against him as well. And the story of shifting alliances and treasure hunting weaving through the monstrous senselessness of some mythic alternate version of the American Civil War is pretty gripping, too.

And then there’s the ending. As you might expect given the title and the genre, the climax of the tale comes in the form of a three-way shoot-out between the main characters. But rather than a wild free-for-all, it takes the form of an agreed-upon tripartite duel (a treyel?) in the middle of the cemetery where the treasure is hidden. THIS SCENE IS ONE OF THE GREATEST THINGS I HAVE EVER SEEN IN MY LIFE. And much of the reason for me being blown away by it is that it should not work. Objectively, the scene is way too long, with three desperate men ever so slowly taking up positions around a stone circle, then standing in place sizing each other up, trying to decide when to draw and whom to shoot first. It is inherently ridiculous. But everything the audience has gotten to know about the characters over the past few hours builds to this moment. And the body language of the actors is perfect. And the camerawork, the cinematography and editing, is perfect. And the music is phenomenal. And after an excruciating amount of tension has built up, when the bullets finally fly, the resolution is dead-on. I don’t want to give away what happens if you’ve never seen it, but it pretty much rules. And then every beat of the denouement afterwards was everything I wanted it to be.

So just when I had convinced myself that westerns would be fun to dig into, I seem to have gone ahead and spoiled myself by watching a masterpiece of the genre first. The problem with legendary works of art that actually do live up to the hype is that very little else will ever live up to them in comparison. But, as I strive to keep in mind, those are the good kinds of problems to have.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Nothing but the jeans

We’ve had two going away lunches at work in as many weeks, the more recent one just this past Friday. Coincidentally, both lunches were not just for people who work at my agency but guys who are fellow contractors (formerly) drawing a paycheck from my employer. And at the second lunch, the gust of honor from the first lunch returned to say congrats and good luck to his erstwhile colleague.

So the former contractor who had been gone for a week or so showed up at the restaurant dressed fairly casually. Somehow I was unprepared for the absolute furor this would set off. Upon seeing him, the very first words out of the mouths of more than one grizzled government contracting veteran was “They let you were jeans to the office at your new job?” To which he could only kind of smile and say yes, indeed they did, at least on casual Friday. I credit him fully for leaving the implicit “And it is freaking SWEET!” unspoken.

I took a job working for a tech start-up back in the late 90’s, and their offices were Casual Every Day. It was pretty much indistinguishable from a college computer lab both in terms of the average age of the people there and the fashion sense on display (best summed up as “unmindfulness”). It was pretty freaking sweet. And I clearly remember, and probably will continue to remember my whole life, a huge banner that was hanging on the wall in one of the testing rooms, where various computers were set up to represent various environments which the products needed to be compatible with. The banner read “Success is measured by results, not effort.” It’s not a particularly profound observation but I remember how it crystallized in my mind the attitude of the company (and, I realized later, of most start-ups from the 90’s tech boom). Even the highest muckety-muckiest of bosses at the company (and there were several of those, guys with titles that started with Chief and ended with Officer, I call it a start-up but really it was more of a spin-off and had a large support structure in place from the get-go) didn’t care if the programmers, testers and designers came in late, left early, went to go see a matinee movie over a three hour lunch, took four day weekends to go skiing, &c., any more than they cared how those guys dressed up or down, or how often they cut their hair or shaved. There were projects with deliverables and deadlines, and as long as things got done on time (and presumably, you know, worked as requested) then everybody was happy. If the project called for a new interface to be delivered in three weeks, nobody cared if delivering said interface was going to be easy or hard, if it was going to take 4 hours of actual coding time or 40 or 140 including a couple of all-nighters. Get the requested results. Nobody cares when or where you get it done, and certainly nobody cares what you wear while you do it.

Once you’ve experienced that it just seems so seductively logical. What does what you’re wearing have to do with how well you perform your job duties, particularly when said duties involve minimal contact with the public and most involve time in quasi-isolation with a computer? And yet still today there are people who are shocked, SHOCKED to consider that outside the creakingly old-school bureaucracies of the government (particularly the defense department, with their institutional love for uniforms and conformity) one might be gainfully employed and yet wear denim during business hours. The mind boggles.

Over the years I’ve gone back and forth, batted around from job to job by prevailing economic forces, and I seem to be on a pattern of alternation: after the spin-off I did some time teaching office productivity software classes, and had to wear a tie every day. Then I worked for another start-up (in a much more traditional sense of the word) and wore jeans and t-shirts to work for years, and sometimes worked from home. Now I’m a contractor required to be all spiffed up when reporting for duty once again. I guess that means the next time I change jobs I need to wind up in a fairly relaxed environment again. Come to think of it, that would probably be one of the few things that could really sway me to consider hopping to a new cubicle farm at this point.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Memoriam

Dick Clark and Levon Helm died this week, sad occurrences both. It seems to be the nature of our modern society that due to reasons of sheer scale we all have far more experience grappling with the passing of people we “know” only in the sense that their celebrity penetrated our consciousness, than with the more private grief of losing someone who was an actual loved one. I choose to see that as a good thing, as surely it’s a positive thing to be able to contend with feelings of loss at some remove as a kind of practice for the inevitable real thing which hits us all sooner or later.

With all due respect to Mr. Helm, Dick Clark’s death had a little more impact on me. (To be honest, I’m not sure I would even be aware of who Levon Helm was if not for my wife’s deep and abiding love for The Band.) Dick Clark was such a huge presence in pop culture and will always be an essential signifier of Americana. He lived a good long while and had a remarkably broad and deep career for most of his years on Earth, and while his most visibly productive days were well behind him, it still feels like he leaves a void behind.

It’s funny, because I was thinking over the last couple of weeks about other people like that, people who are still alive despite having careers which actually began right around if not well before the time I was born, people whose work has just always been a part of the fabric of the world I know. I was going to do one of my “Five Things” inventories for those luminaries, but I couldn’t think of five of them. And when Dick Clark died one of my first thoughts was “oh, right, he should have been on the list.”

While I was spinning my wheels trying to think of five famous people who will make my world a markedly different place when they depart it forever, I found an overabundance of creative types who meant a lot to me but didn’t fit the particular criteria I had in mind. For whatever reason, probably because it was an overall morbid train of thought, my brain kept dredging up people who had already died. I’ve talked more than once before about my obsession with David Foster Wallace, who committed suicide back in 2008. But there’s other people whose absences really gnaw at me in weird ways. It’s hard for me to hear a routine by Mitch Hedberg, who might just be my favorite stand-up of all time, without wishing he were still around. Ditto any exposure to the Beatles and longing for a septuagenarian John Lennon. I was crushed when The Crow became Brandon Lee’s swan song (and I’m not the only one, as several of my friends agreed that in a perfect world Brandon would have played Neo in the Matrix) and I was bitterly disappointed when Christopher Reeves died before regaining the ability to walk, something he and I both fervently believed was not only possible but simply a matter of time.

But not only are all of those guys off the board already, but they were by and large all taken too soon, most of them with foreshortened careers. Sometimes, purely from the perspective of artistic legacy, that might be for the best. Even when I refocused my attention on living celebrities who had been practicing their craft for my entire life or longer, another stumbling block I hit with alarming frequency was folks who probably should have quit while they were ahead a while ago: George Lucas, Stan Lee, Eddie Van Halen. Don’t get me wrong, I’ll still raise a glass and acknowledge the things these guys created which touched my life profoundly whenever the choirs of angels sing them to their rest. But I won’t lament the additional movies George will never write or direct, the further comic books Stan will never create, the bonus tracks Eddie will never lay down. They peaked, they went downhill, and they’ve given the world plenty of evidence that their creative output will not be remembered as cut short in its prime. Such is life in an entropic universe &c.

So my full list (which barely qualifies as a list because it is only two items long) is as follows: Yogi Berra and Stephen King. When baseball season got underway, ESPN profiled Yogi (and Ron Guidry, who has become Yogi’s official driver for Yankees functions) and how he still goes down to spring training and whatnot, and it occurred to me that Yogi had played his last game something like nine years before I was born and thus, to me, has always been a living legend from the earliest dynasty days in New York, and since I am getting kind of old he is seriously old. And he won’t be around forever, but it will be strange and sad when the day comes that proves that point, though hopefully not for a while yet.

And I thought about who else was so constant in my awareness, and no surprise I thought of Stephen King next. Of course, because I’m re-reading The Dark Tower now, which is the series he almost didn’t finish because we almost lost him in 1999, and which was about mortality and legacies even before his near-death car accident infused it with even more meaning. King’s been writing books my entire life and I look forward to reading a couple of new books by him every year, and when, sometime after he breathes his last, they run out of stockpiled manuscripts to publish that will be a total drag, man.

It’s hard to perform at the same stratospheric level in any artistic (or athletic/philosophical) medium for decade after decade, so I probably shouldn’t be too surprised that my can’t-imagine-a-world-without-their-work list runs so short. And the real shame is, it’s only going to get shorter from here.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Getting each other's back

On Tuesday when I went to pick up the little guy from daycare I had his convalescing sister in tow and because it was such a mild and pleasant day she was wearing only a onesie. It so happened that the little guy’s class was out on the playground when I arrived, and as I was talking to the little guy (in an attempt at easing him into the thought of leaving with me before the official end of recess) one of the other boys ran up to us, noticed the little girl’s bare feet, said “Ew, she has stinky feet!” and ran off again. I did not find this particularly troubling, chalking it up to just one of those things kids say when they’re in the process of figuring out the world and its signifiers. But her brother became the very picture of affrontery, yelling after his classmate in great indignation: “That’s not true! AND THAT’S A BAD WORD!!!”

The little guy in fact shouted that accusation ludly enough to get the attention of one of the teachers out on the playground, who came over to me and asked in a low voice “What word?” To which I could only reply “I believe it was ‘stinky’.” Which, probably, the teachers no doubt try to discourage the children from slinging around as a descriptor for one another, but I could tell by the look on the playground teacher’s face that she had been fearing or expecting something much worse.

And the funny thing from my perspective is that in the past week or two, the little guy has plowed headlong at full speed into the phase in which the words “peepee” and “poopie” are HILARIOUS. Inherently amusing, and also amusing in the way that despite our every effort to not let him get a rise out of us, my wife and I both twitch visibly whenever the little guy nonsensically works the words into conversation. Most of the time we ignore it, only occasionally letting him know that it’s all right to sing a silly song about a poopie but not all right to call someone poopie-head or threaten “I’m gonna put poopie in your eye!”, but even when we ignore it there’s as often as not a small exasperated sigh and the little guy is not the kind of kid to miss something like that. He knows, he knows he can get under our skin and he is bound and determined to do so. And we know that’s developmentally appropriate and he’ll outgrow it soon enough, and we just have to ride it out.

Might as well just get him the t-shirt
But, at the very least, it is interesting to see how the little guy has a version of himself he’s building for interacting with the larger world, his school persona who (I’m especially pleased to note) would stand up for his little sister and even call other people on transgressions. Of course there’s a fine line between being an upright moral pillar and being a snitchy tattletale, but let’s give him the benefit of the doubt. But then, at home with his family, the little guy inhabits a completely different persona who is entirely consumed with mapping out exactly what he can and cannot get away with.

The little girl, for her part, is not so much formulating variable interface patterns between herself and the world, but she has decidedly entered the realm of communication. I mentioned previously that she has mastered the art of crawling up to someone’s feet, hauling herself upright on their pant legs, and staring up at them waiting to be picked up. I’m not sure I would classify that as communication; clearly there is an expectation from the climber which must be acted on by the climbed, but it’s more inherent to the situation than really expressed. But the little girl has added on to this, and now when you do pick her up she very emphatically gestures in a particular direction and makes little sounds with an unmistakably interrogative rise in pitch at the end: “Uhh? Uhh? Uhh?” so that you can’t help but hear it as “That thing? Over there? Can you carry me over there so I can get a better look at that thing? Please?” I think I had forgotten that her brother started out the exact same way, but it’s all coming back to me now. Specifically that I am such a staunch believer that communication, the act of translating our own internal words into terms that other people can understand and incorporate into their internal worlds, is the fundamentally most essential element of the human condition that when my children show the first sparks of awareness of that realm I completely geek out, and don’t mind being completely enslaved by the whims of a one-year-old who knows how to point and grunt.

Also, one last thing on the children/daycare front: the little girl is starting yet another round of antibiotics for yet another ear infection, after just completing the last course on Monday night, poor little thing. I still maintain that all this inoculation via socializing at daycare will be better for her in the long run, but sometimes it seems a bit much in the moment. The daycare center usually posts a note on the front door whenever there’s a communicable disease detected in one of the children in their care, along the lines of “There has been a reported case of chicken pox in the center” or something like that. Yesterday I went to pick up both kids and there was a note on the front door which said “The following have been reported as of today: 4 cases of hand foot and mouth, 1 case of chicken pox, 1 case of thrush, 1 case of croup” which I swear I am not even exaggerating about, despite the fact that if I were going to make a joke about how daycare centers are big Petri dishes of infection that is exactly the kind of gag note I would concoct, with the possible addition of one more far-fetched disease, like “1 case of ergotism”. Because I do kind of like the idea of toddlers accusing one another of witchcraft – if you’re going to snitch and tattle, go big, I say.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Strange adventures

Yesterday the little girl was crankily negotiating the after-effects of some vaccinations administered at her one-year pediatrician’s visit, and I stayed home with her rather than subjecting her daycare providers to said crankiness (and, for that matter, rather than subjecting her to being one infant among many when what she really wanted was some individual TLC), and once again it proved entirely too difficult for me to carve out blogging time with a needy and clingy tot on one hand and the never-ending list of things needing doing around the house on the other. But, I did squeeze in some random passive internet time, some of which got me thinking about genres.

Specifically, thinking about the superhero genre versus the horror genre. Of course both are particular favorites of mine, but they have some other commonalities beyond that. They’re both particularly visual story genres, thriving in comic books and movies (not exclusively, obviously; you don’t need to tell this Stephen King fan that horror short stories and novels do all right for themselves, and prose superhero stuff isn’t unheard of, either). They’re also both fairly ghettoized, for reasons which seem arbitrary if not unfathomable; war movies or westerns or various other niche genres can have high body counts, ultra-violence, heroes on pedestals, scenery-chewing villains, etc. and being a fan of those things gets mostly “oh, ok, cool” responses, while being an avowed horror or superhero fan is far more likely to earn “oh, ok, weirdo” instead. Superhero comics begat Wizard magazine just as monster movies begat Fangoria, because those fandoms are subcultures that demanded narrowly focused publications, as opposed to everything else that’s part of the general culture.

Here’s the thing, though, coming at it from a slightly different direction: horror is a geeky interest, superheroes are a geeky interest, and since they both appeal to me I have always assumed that they appeal to the basic geek archetype in equal measure. Stephen King is on the record as a huge Batman proponent, and Gene “The Demon” Simmons of KISS is likewise a major Spider-Man fan. Or take someone like Joss Whedon, who not only just about perfectly blended superhero and horror tropes throughout Buffy the Vampire Slayer but also has two big movies due out this year: a horror flick (The Cabin in the Woods) and a superhero blockbuster (The Avengers). Yes, do in fact take Joss as an example, because therein lies the crux of my recent epiphany, stemming from the shocking amount of difficulty I had in finding people among my geeky cadre of friends who were willing to go see Cabin in the Woods in the theater with me. Because apparently being heavily into superheroes (and various other deep-end geeky pursuits) does not guarantee that one is all that into horror. Who knew?

I went wandering down this trail of thought again yesterday after a conversation which had nothing to do with Joss Whedon movies, a conversation with people I only know as fellow superhero comics fans online, where more than one person reacted to the very concept of the horror genre with a quick dismissive “not my cup of tea”. Once again this threw me for a loop, but as I saw the parallels to the movie theater excursion I realized this divide must run pretty deep. And I’ve come to the conclusion that superhero stories and horror stories are essentially two sides of the same coin.

Next time, a 2000-word discourse on why werewolves are the monsters most frequently appropriated as superhero protagonists!
They’re both extreme forms of escapism, but from opposite ends of the spectrum. Superheroes are wish-fulfillment fantasies, presenting protagonists who are (theoretically) embodiments of everything the audience wishes they could be. Sometimes this is a good thing, when the embodiment is a paragon of virtue (like Superman), and sometimes it’s arguably less of a good thing, when the embodiment is a cold-blooded revenge fantasy (like the Punisher) but it’s a pretty consistent throughline. Horror stories are nightmare fuel, presenting antagonists who are embodiments of the things the audience is afraid of. But neither one is terribly realistic, or likely to resemble what the average person would encounter in daily life, even if the superhero in question is an unpowered vigilante or the terror being examined is a plausible serial killer.

I think the protagonist/antagonist shift is noteworthy enough to dwell on it a little more. Comicbook series are named after superheroes, and the reader expects to follow the adventures of Green Lantern or Wolverine or whoever as he fights a never-ending (sometimes rotating) string of bad guys. Horror novels and movies are named after the monsters. It’s Night of the Living Dead, not Night of the Human Survivors; It, not The Kids from Derry; Dracula, not Van Helsing (yeah I know they made a movie called Van Helsing but that’s hardly a horror film). And whoever gets the title billing is basically in control of the story.

That might be the fundamentally most important distinction between the two genres, then: superhero stories are about promoting order and defending the status quo, whereas horror stories are about chaos. In a prototypical superhero tale there might be some innocent victims who are plot devices, but you can pretty much count on the hero saving the day and evil being defeated without any losses. In horror, there’s no guarantee of a happy ending. From Friday the 13th to Alien, the good girl may have survived the psycho killer’s rampage, but all of her friends are wormfood. And in the sequels, it may very well be that none of the original cast return to have more adventures … except for the villain.

But there’s no guarantee of a downer ending, either, and that’s the really subversive part. A lot of horror stories end ambiguously, with “The End …?” or the equivalent, and ambiguity equals chaos. The audience goes into a superhero story knowing how it’s all going to end and wanting to revel in the awesomeness of the getting there. The audience goes into a horror story with no idea what’s going to happen; maybe terror will stalk in the night but ultimately be vanquished, or maybe terror will pile up corpses right up to the last frame or page … and YOU COULD BE NEXT! So horror isn’t about wallowing in the awfulness of blood and tears and depravity, not entirely at any rate. It’s exhilarating, just like superheroes are exhilarating, but with fear fueling the adrenaline. Instead of the sensation of flying, it’s the sensation of spinning around with your eyes closed. And that’s not for everyone.

Of course there’s exceptions to all of this. Deconstructed superhero stories often have evil triumphing or the hero failing, and even straightforward comics sometimes feature villains as anti-hero title characters (oddly enough, those are consistently among my least favorites). And it’s certainly possible to come across a horror story that’s both gratuitous and yet somehow predictable and boring. But as broad strokes go, I think I’m onto something. So there may be a general geek tendency to seek out escapism in the strange and fantastic, but even so there will be a wide scope-of-humanity range in the deeper reasons for seeking it out. If it’s for comfort and reassurance, looking to a fictional world that makes sense and plays by the rules because the real world often doesn’t, then superhero stories are the right kind of strange but horror stories are not. If it’s for the spice of variety, novelty for novelty’s sake, then either superheroes or monsters can meet the need.

Undoubtedly there are some geeks out there who really don’t care for superhero stuff and are exclusively all about the horror, but I can’t claim to have ever really made any friends who fall into that category. Clearly those are the people to whom I would say “oh, ok … weirdo.”

Monday, April 16, 2012

Data Snitching

Things at work got surprisingly busy the middle of last week, as one of the senior government employees approached me to see if I could possibly extract and analyze some of the raw data in one of our proprietary process handlers, because the pre-programmed analysis reports weren’t quite looking at things in the way this employee wanted. And in fact I was able to do so and provide what the guy was looking for, and in further fact I was so excited to have something remotely technical and solution-oriented to do that I nearly forgot to pad out my estimates of how long the job would take. But then once I had turned the request around, the results immediately prompted further requests for similar extractions and analysis in the same vein, and requests from different sources, and it got to be a bit of legitimate effort staying on top of it all.

The problem was that the process in question was taking too long on average, as revealed by an end-of-quarter standard analysis, and thus began a round of trying to figure out how the current metrics compared with the same period a year ago, or a quarter ago, and once there was no denying that things had clearly slowed down from previous levels, it turned into a matter of trying to figure out why. And then after that, it slowly dawned on me that it was turning into a matter of trying to figure out who was to blame.

I just need a small stack of these.
The answer was never going to be “me” – I have no responsibilities at all in the process, I just handle the technical upkeep on the tool that other people use to facilitate the process. (Sorry for the overwhelming vagueness but as always I don’t want to get too bogged down in details which are both technical and also potentially military secrets.) But several of my fellow contractors (in the sense of being employed by the same company as me, as opposed to the other quasi-rival contractors who happen to have tasks in the same agency office as me) do work on the process, so at the same time the senior government employee is asking for this additional data analysis, my contracting boss’s right-hand man is asking for some of the same analysis and some further hacks at the data as well, because if the government decides the process is not being executed well, it’s our contract that could be on the line. And that of course is more than enough incentive for me to answer every question I’m asked and turn around every request for new numbers as fast as I can. But in talking to my contracting colleague I realized he already had some idea of where the bottlenecks in the process were recurring, and when I ran the numbers he asked or they essentially confirmed his suspicions. At that point I realized that I was helping to build a case for laying the blame squarely on one of my co-workers, which for all I knew might get them fired.

Which, frankly, takes all the nerdy fun out of scripting database queries. It’s not even one of those ethical workplace quandaries where you have a very collegial relationship with your manager and then one day he says, “So I’m thinking about firing Joe, does that strike you as a good idea?” and you don’t want to lie and cover for Joe but you don’t want to throw him under the bus either and on the third hand you don’t want to hazard being frozen out of your manager’s confidence by not playing along in the right way. It’s not that. “Tell me how long X part of Process Z takes on average and what the variance factors are” is pretty straightforward and there’s no way to either fudge or finesse it. And if it turns out that the data reveals someone isn’t fulfilling their job duties and that leads to negative consequences for said employee, it seems fairly cut and dry. But it’s still a drag. I kept expecting my boss’s second to ask me for an employee-by-employee breakdown of process completion times, and I even started preparing them in advance, but by the end of last week and through today that specific request hasn’t come. Maybe the storm has blown over, maybe the government side is rethinking how strict their timeline expectations need to be (once it moves away from empirical data and into theoretical policy-making, I’m long since cut out of the loop, anyway). I’m hoping so.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Saturday Grab Bag on the Path of the Beam

Somehow I completely spaced out during my whole “how I kept the Gunslinger groove going in my mind while waiting to get the next Gunslinger volume” litany and forgot to mention one other piece of genre-bridging entertainment I turned to: How the West Was Weird. (Still available on Amazon!) It probably slipped slightly out of mind because I am ashamed to admit that the book has been out for like a year and I haven’t yet read every story in it. In my defense, I will acknowledge that the quality of the stories exhibits significant variance, shall we say. Couple that with the fact that one of the hurdles of completing any anthology of self-contained short stories is that it’s all too easy to set it aside for long periods of time between one tale and the next because there’s zero narrative momentum to carry you through the whole book, and so it goes. But yeah, I returned to it last week because, at the end of the day, “weird west” is exactly what the Dark Tower saga is, very much so at the outset for the first two or three books, arguably less so as it rambles along, but always essentially rooted there. At this point I’m very nearly done with book two and I’ve been dragging my feet about even ordering a copy of book three, so I’ll likely (finally!) finish HTWWW soon.

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Speaking of Dark Tower, I had forgotten how good The Drawing of the Three was. Going into the re-read, my recollection was that the first three or four books of the series were a bit disjointed and really showed the seams that resulted from stitching together some short stories from the 70’s into one novella and then writing a sequel novel six years after that and so on. I also remember being significantly disappointed when the bizarre other-worldliness of The Gunslinger, with its small hints of connection with the real contemporary world, gave way in the next book to significantly more focus on our world and much less development of Roland’s. To cite another (far more atrocious) example, in the 80’s they made a live-action He-Man movie and rather than setting the entire story on Eternia like the cartoon (and the toy line for that matter), it involved dimensional travel to Earth so that He-Man could meet some plucky American kids who would help save the universe from Skeletor and blah blah blah. I never saw the movie, and I understand it’s total drek, but I was put off from the start by that unnecessary grounding. It basically sends the message that the studio thinks the audience is stupid, that if a story is self-contained in a fantasy setting then no one watching will be able to relate to the protagonists or care about the stakes no matter how universal they may be at their core, but as long as you connect those techno-barbarians and cyber-necromancers with the lives of fictional people dwelling on the East Coast in the present then all is well. As if tons of self-contained fantasy including certain stone cold classics just doesn’t exist. Anyway, I was invested in Roland’s quest from the get-go and desperately curious to learn more about his world, so the hard right turn into assembling his posse of 20th century New Yorkers rubbed me the wrong way. Now, knowing how the whole story involves parallel worlds pretty intrinsically, I’m much more forgiving, and without that chip on my shoulder I enjoyed The Drawing of the Three tremendously.

Spot on.
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OK, at some point I’m going to talk about things other than The Dark Tower, I swear! But not today. One more thing, about a particular line that jumped out at me this time around. The second book starts out with Roland in a bad situation that gets a lot worse before it gets better, and as things are rapidly falling apart in ways which self-evidently must have dire consequences, he thinks to himself, twice, in his stoic interior monologue: I see serious problems ahead. Despite not having much natural faculty for it myself, I do enjoy a good understatement, but I think this one has particular resonance with me now for a couple of reasons. In the time since I first read The Drawing of the Three the Star Wars prequels have come out and I’ve re-watched the original movies many, many more times (funny enough this week’s HIMYM was about hat very thing) and, of course, “I’ve got a bad feeling about this” is a recurring line of dialogue from those movies which has only gotten embedded deeper and deeper in my brain over time. But then again, it also echoes “Winter is coming” (or “Winter is coomin’” if you prefer, certainly I do) in its repeated doomsaying and that’s been much bandied about lately, as well.

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Rivalry Redux

Well it certainly has been an interesting first week of the MLB season in terms of ups and downs, particularly within my household. By the time we were three games in, the Yankees had yet to win a game and the Orioles had yet to lose. I referred to Baltimore as “the 3-and-O’s” and my wife enjoyed that very much, but then almost immediately reverted to maligning April as the cruelest month, because so many times in the past the O’s have gotten her hopes up at the outset by playing sharp and showing promise, only to slouch ever-basementward as the summer rolls along. As always, I know there is no way to remotely approach this topic without sounding monstrously condescending, but I’ll hazard it: I feel bad for my wife. At times she seems as forlorn as a Cubs fan, without the institutionalized sympathy one gets as part of the Cubs fan package. I can relate to the absurd helplessness of having your heart broken by a professional sports franchise on a game-by-game basis, because it happens to me multiple times each year, too. But I can’t entirely empathize with the waiting-for-the-other-shoe-to-drop dread tainting a season-starting sweep. All I can do is sympathize, and wish for some expansion teams and division realignment which would put the Yankees and O’s in different groupings such that I could root for my team and her team almost all the time (see: Giants and Steelers) instead of running the gauntlet of BAL vs. NYY eight times a year.

The first instance of which, for 2012, came right on the heels of those respective perfect and 0-fer starts. I was pretty sanguine about the stumble out of the gate, Mo blowing a save and the Yankees getting swept by another AL East team and everything, but at the same time I feared I’d be a little more unhinged about 0-and-6. I didn’t want the solution to come at the Orioles’ expense, or the expense of my domestic harmony, but I wasn’t given any choice in the matter. At any rate, here’s a brief rundown of the week at home:

MONDAY – My wife and I watched How I Met Your Mother, then flipped over to MASN, saw the Yankees had a fairly sizable lead, and proceeded to pop in Game of Thrones to watch episode six. (The Yankees ended up winning.)
TUESDAY – My wife worked late, I turned the game in the background on while straightening up around the house, the game was tied when my wife got home and when we got ready for bed, and when it was still tied after 9 complete innings we just shut it off in favor of sleep. (The Yankees ended up winning in 12.)
WEDNESDAY – Almost exactly the same as Tuesday! (Except the Yankees ended up winning in 10 after we turned off the game in our bedroom.)
THURSDAY – An off day for both teams, which very conveniently allowed us to watch Community and the rest of the Thursday night lineup without distraction.

Obligatory Community reference!
So now both our teams are 3-and-3, and generally in our family you do not complain about .500 ball, so there you go. My wife was certainly not pleased about being swept, but I give her all the credit in the world for not punishing me too harshly (at all, really) over that turn of events. And there are other bright spots, as well, most notably that the Red Sox are not only in last place in the AL East but have the worst record in the majors at the moment. Every time I gloat over Boston in a post like this, I usher in some regrettable reversal of fortune, but I can’t help it! If I can’t enjoy being on top of the Red Sox rivalry, however fleetingly, I really don’t see the point.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Profligate happiness

Today my little girl is one year old, which means (among many other, almost certainly more important things) that for twelve months my unabated sense of life being good has been in full effect. When my wife and I (mostly my wife) brought the little guy into the world and into our lives, it changed everything but almost always in a positive way and never felt like anything less than a blessing. To have a second child, which in my mind at least felt like a 100% increase in delight with only maybe 10% more life-alteration, just about defies comprehension. Even after I’ve had a full year (a leap-year, no less!) to get used to it.

The little girl is at this moment halfway through a course of antibiotics for her third ear infection in as many months, which is a bit of a drag, but she’s on the mend and hopefully with the weather improving and cold season ending she’ll be getting sick less often. If not, well, her brother had lots of ear infections too and we rode that out (and addressed it surgically) and we can do the same for her if it comes to that. She should be in reasonably good health and spirits for her birthday party on Saturday, where there will hopefully be no shortage of people willing to hold her hands and help her toddle around, an activity which she has gotten pretty adept at, along with the ability to crawl up to someone’s leg, grab on and pull herself to her feet, and look up at the person with an unmistakable plea of “Are you gona help a sister stroll around this joint, or what?” on her determined little face. So, yeah, if you’re planning on being at the party, be ready for that!

What a long strange trip it will be
Just as the little girl is poised to start getting into absolutely everything, it looks like we may be catching a break as far as the d├ętente between her and her brother goes. Granted, often times “looks like” means “I am projecting my desire for this to be true” but ah well. It seems to me, at any rate, that the little guy has gotten much better recently at sharing with his sister, up to and including sharing some of his most favorite toys (all of which, it goes without saying, are cars). It almost seems as if it is starting to dawn on him that if his sister is interested in his playthings, then that means there is a person who is into the same stuff he is into and that sharing of interests is actually fairly cool and enjoyable and worth nurturing rather than freaking out and getting inordinately possessive about. There’s a glimmer of that in his behavior, at least, which I’m also hoping bodes well for this weekend’s festivities. At this point I think the most likely scenario is not so much that the little guy will pitch a wobbly because his sister is getting all the attention (and all the loot) and he is not, but rather that he will put forth all indications that he is happy about his sister’s celebration and cheerfully help her unwrap her presents, after which he will equally cheerfully select whichever of her new gifts he thinks is the coolest and wander off to play with it by himself. And honestly, if that happens, it’s fine, and I’m a lot more inclined to cut him some slack and let him take a few toys for the first test drive given the fact that he has been more inclined to cut his sister some slack, too. It all goes around and around.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

If it's a comedy, why do I feel so sad? (La Dolce Vita)

It is indeed 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die Blog Club time once again, but go with me for a bit here as I start out talking about a few movies which are not La Dolce Vita.

I have been a big fan of John Cusack ever since he was starring in Savage Steve Holland joints like One Crazy Summer and Better Off Dead. I’ve also enjoyed the novels of Nick Hornby which I’ve had the pleasure of reading, especially High Fidelity. So Cusack’s performance as Rob in the film adaptation of High Fidelity is pretty much foremost among that movie’s charms (with Jack Black’s turn as Barry a very close second). And quite possibly my favorite-part-of-favorite-part is a monologue Rob delivers to the camera about intellectual literacy. I’ve been known to quote this monologue at the drop of a hat, and I will now transcribe it from memory. I may not have it 100% verbatim, but that’s not the point. If I wanted it reproduced perfectly I could just look it up, but this is the version that resides in my head:

I mean, I’m not stupid. I’ve read books, like Love in the Time of Cholera, and The Unbearable Lightness of Being, and I think I even understood them. They’re about chicks, right? Kidding. But I gotta say, my favorite book of all time is Johnny Cash’s autobiography, Cash by Johnny Cash.


Which reminds me that one of these days I myself have to get around to picking up Cash (esp. since I’ve already read Kundera and Garcia Marquez) but that is beside the point, or even more beside the point than we already are. So the point, then, is this: watching La Dolce Vita was for me a lot like reading Love in the Time of Cholera was for Rob, including the kinda-joking idea floating through my mind that it’s a story about chicks.

Yes, it’s a classic, and yes, it’s the work of a master (Fellini), and yes, it’s thought-provoking and mesmerizing. But I did find myself running into a bit of a dead end every time I tried to ask myself “so what is it all about?” I think part of this was due in part to various aspects of the movie’s trappings, like the original movie poster and the art on the DVD itself and the sequence that plays alongside the DVD menu, all of which feature Anita Ekberg as Sylvia and make understandable an assumption that the story is about her, or about Marcello’s doomed pursuit of her, or something like that. But no, Sylvia flits in and out of Marcello’s life, one of many picaresque episodes. One of many, many, many episodes. It took me a while to realize Sylvia wasn’t coming back, and after that, there was still a lot more movie to go.

Playing in Trevi Fountain before it was a cliche?
So if the movie isn’t about that particular chick, any more than it’s about Marcello’s womanizing in general, what is it all about? Life, I suppose. Life as it was lived in a particular moment in time in a particular segment of society in a particular geographical location, but modern life in general as well. And I know that all great art is supposed to engage on some level with this struggle to reflect and comment on life, but if I’m being completely honest (and why wouldn’t I be) I remain deeply skeptical of any work for which “it’s about life, man” is one of the few specific things you can say about it. I could probably go a step further and say that La Dolce Vita is about how modern, urban, upper-class life is fundamentally empty and unsatisfying, but it goes about demonstrating this in a really simplistic way. Marcello is a cipher, and almost everyone else in his life is a straw-man for the argument: Sylvia is the oblivious starlet, Marcello’s father is the absentee parent, Emma is the long-suffering love/hate object, Steiner is the (INCREDIBLY DEPRESSING SPOILER) admired friend who seems to have it all until he shoots his small children and himself. It sucks to realize that your dad is gonna die soon and you’ll never have a real connection with him, it sucks to feel tied to a person you don’t want to be with but who will literally kill themselves if you leave them, it sucks to realize no one in the world has life all figured out, I get it, I get it, I get it. Three hours of it all is just a bit much, however much heresy it might be for me to harbor that particular opinion.

All that notwithstanding, I was glad that I hung in there until the very end for the sequence on the beach, where Marcello encounters a prehistoric-looking giant stingray in a fisherman’s net, and then sees a young girl he had met earlier. I’m not sure I completely got the symbolism of the famous Jesus-statue-dangling-from-a-helicopter shots at the beginning, but I found the ending a little easier to grasp. The imagery of life and death as mysteries so incomprehensible they’re practically alien; our own pasts as smiling, fair and bright children, shouting at us from the other side of a wide gap, even though we can’t hear them to understand what they want to tell us. At least that was my takeaway. I reckon that another advantage of creating a work that defies being about anything specific is that it remains wide open for interpretation. Much like life.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

The Dark Undertaking

It seemed like a simple enough project, in the planning stages: trade off consuming a certain number of new (to me) books this year in order to devote a good chunk of my commute-enabled reading time to re-familiarizing myself with some old, beloved fantasy series. I took a mental stab at how long it would take me to re-read each book and mapped out the middle part of this year accordingly. I lined up Rothfuss’s Kingkiller Chronicle first because only two (admittedly very long) books in the proposed trilogy have been published to date, and I wanted to be conversant in the finer points once I put the second volume in my wife’s hands. That all worked out well enough; I read both books in about two or three weeks around the end of February and beginning of March, and knowing the larger shape of the story so far helped me pick out new, telling little details and fix the whole thing more firmly in my memory. My wife is now maybe ten percent of the way into book two, and I have yet to panic at my lack of recall when she mentions the bits that catch her attention.

Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire will be the third series I revisit, beginning (in theory) some time around the end of June and finishing (again, in theory) in late August when the paperback edition of book five becomes available. I may very well end up reading much if not all of A Dance With Dragons on the beach during my family vacation if the stars align. But that’s a ways off yet.

Funny thing is the saga gets pretty far away from the southwestern motifs before too long
At the moment, though, I’m re-acclimating to Mid-World, home of Roland the Gunslinger and primary setting of Stephen King’s Dark Tower series. And, perhaps unsurprisingly for such an ominous and fatalistic series, things got off to a bit of a bumpy start. Not in terms of the story itself, which is still entertainingly weird, but the specific, obsessive-geek manner in which I am trying to relate to the whole endeavor.

The first time I read The Gunslinger I was 18 and I checked the book out of the local library. I had officially been an avid King fan for at least four years by then and had plowed through a good chunk of his back catalog (which even in 1992 was pretty substantial) before finally getting around to The Gunslinger, which I think I had avoided up to that point because I really wasn’t that into westerns. (Yet another case of my younger self truly having no idea what he was missing.) I was also vaguely aware of the fact that, by the 90’s, the series was frequently referenced as “unfinished” and I wasn’t sure how invested I wanted to get if closure was a distant possibility with no guarantees attached. I think all that reluctance and hesitation was at least part of the reason why I opted to read the book for free and give it back to the library rather than pick it up at a bookstore; I wasn’t exactly the book collector I would later become, but I had a shelf of Stephen King paperbacks all the same. In any case, in order to re-read The Dark Tower I would need to get my hands on The Gunslinger again, so I ordered a used hardcover online, and figured I would continue ordering one book at a time in the series as I got close to finishing each preceding volume.

Of course, The Gunslinger is a very modest tale, barely a novella, basically a repurposing of five short stories that all feature Roland. So it took me almost no time at all to re-read it. I ordered book two, The Drawing of the Three (yeah, the second volume has a “three” in the title, which is confusing, as is the fact that the seventh book is entitled “The Dark Tower” which makes everything retroactively kind of like referring to George Lucas’s magnum opus as “The Return of the Jedi Trilogy”), in used-hardcover as well, but the third-party seller who had the format I wanted apparently ships their books via slow boat from Denver. The arrival date was estimated anywhere from April 9 to April 21.

Not only could this potentially throw off my schedule for re-reading King’s series and moving on to Martin’s, but it also raised the question of what exactly I was supposed to do to fill the gap between books one and two. At the risk of repeating myself in ironic doddering fashion, this whole mad scheme was inspired by the fact that I don’t remember details about these stories which I vaguely recall enjoying once. So the last thing I wanted to do was read a couple of random books which could potentially dislodge the Gunslinger details I had recently fixed anew.

I was able to kill a little bit of time reading The Dark Tower: A Concordance, v.1 which I acquired specifically for this project. Or, I should say, I skimmed it, since it’s really a reference guide for the first four books of the series (v.2 covers the last three books) that had its origins as indexed notes which Stephen King paid a research assistant to compile so that he wouldn’t contradict himself as he set to work finishing writing the series after the turn of the millennium. At the very least, it made me feel better to know that while I might no longer have The Dark Tower memorized chapter and verse, neither did its creator at one point. A small portion of Concordance is analysis-oriented, which really was fascinating to read, but a lot of it is glossary-style lists of characters and places which, frankly, doesn’t doa lot to enhance the re-read experience. It might be good for jogging the memory without having to go to the trouble of re-reading every word, but I want to go to that trouble. I was hoping for more insight along the lines of “you might not have noticed these parallels or repeated motifs” etc., or even an examination of just how many books King wrote which don’t have The Dark Tower stamped on them and which are set on earth, not Mid-World, but which nevertheless reference the central mythology of The Gunslinger and its sequels (for a while there in the 00’s it seemed like King couldn’t put a book out without including some shout-out to Roland and/or his adversary the Crimson King). Of course, rabid completist that I am, even though Concordance v.1 was just so-so I will no doubt track down a copy of Concordance v.2 before this is all done.

I still had more time to wait after that, so I started brainstorming other entertainments I could avail myself of. One notion that occurred to me was to dig out the short story “The Little Sisters of Eluria” which is technically part of The Dark Tower canon, but is a tale from Roland’s past that doesn’t really enhance the overall epic quest saga. Or so I thought the first time I read it, but maybe it plays a bigger narrative role than I first believed, and I might as well look into it since in that case I do own a copy. Or … I did? I must have lost or sold the paperback that story was in a while back. I was actually half-convinced that I had two copies of the story, one in a compilation of King stories and one in an anthology by various horror and fantasy authors, but after doing some research on the latter possibility I’ve fully convinced myself I never actually owned a copy of Legends: Short Novels by the Masters of Modern Fantasy. How odd.

So then I determined that what I should do instead was Netflix some Sergio Leone movies, because along with Tolkien and maybe Malory, Leone’s films are some of the primary influences on The Gunslinger. And I’m not a dumb kid anymore who thinks horse operas are dumb and boring. Plus, there are quite a few Leone spaghetti westerns on the 1001 Films list, so two birds with one stone and all that. Of course, I had a 1001 Films assignment for this week (review coming up tomorrow) to get through first, but I did some queue rearranging for afterwards … and then The Drawing of the Three showed up at my house yesterday, which was a relief but also the tiniest bit strangely disappointing. Now I need to come up with a new excuse for watching The Good the Bad and the Ugly … but fortunately coming up with excuses for consuming various bits of pop culture is something I’m pretty good at.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Workloads

They are painting the re-configured walls around the entrances to my office suite today, which seems to indicate that the Great Security Upgrade is nearly complete. Presumably the installation of secure workstations at our cubicles would take place not too long after that, although there has been a small but constant crowd of people in the network hub room for a week or two now, including today, which leads me to believe the infrastructure re-jiggering has not been keeping pace with the construction. So who knows, file the to-be-completed date for all of our network clearance-level needs being co-located on the same floor right alongside getting new low-clearance workstations that can multitask without freezing up, as well as the server offloading I was teased with a few weeks back and haven’t heard any update on since. These things will happen when they happen, if they happen at all, and all I can do is wait and see.

I suppose I am something of a captive audience.
Maybe I shouldn’t be too hard on the people whose job it is to provide me with a GFE or host the apps I’m responsible for. Schedules slip and that’s just the way of things. This past weekend, for example, my wife and I had identified a few modest gardening and lawncare projects which we thought it would be best to complete before having a houseful of guests over next weekend for the little girl’s birthday. Before we even got started on them, though, we were forced to scale back the list simply because the overnights had once again turned inhospitably cold for, e.g., planting flowers. Still, we set ourselves to the remaining tasks on the schedule as of mid-Sunday-morning, and by the time Sunday dinner rolled around we were both somewhat shocked at how it had taken us essentially all day just to barely get through our abridged list. Everything always takes longer than you think it’s going to, is the moral there I guess, whether it’s something you’re doing for yourself or something you’re waiting for someone else to get done for you.

But, again, the bright side is that we had a whole day at home in which to do stuff, and stuff got done. There’s much more to do between now and Saturday’s party, of course, all in the manic after-work and in-between-other-unavoidables fashion, but not only is that pretty much business as usual, but in that mode every little thing checked off the list feels like a major victory. But there is some solid reasoning behind the fact that I blocked out next Sunday on the calendar purely for purposes of “recovery”.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Lorax Ipsum

There was a predictable (and largely appropriate) amount of ire and outrage when the big advertising push for this year’s Lorax movie got underway. Or, more specifically, when the cross-promotional ad campaigns got underway, including the now-semi-infamous branding of a Mazda SUV as “Lorax Approved!” You have to admit the gall of it is pretty monumental; it’s one thing to hype up biodegradable disposable diapers as having the Lorax’s endorsement, but an SUV? I mean, come ON, people.

We are not amused.
Of course all of this brouhaha was stirred up before the movie ever came out, because that’s the way Hollywood advertising and synergy and stuff works, so the vast majority of the people raising hue and/or cry hadn’t seen the flick. I took the little guy to see it over the weekend, and I can now say definitively that there’s a lot of revisionism going on in the movie, a lot of which is … provocative. I’ve meditated before on the fact that the book could not possibly be more of a call to action considering that the text is written to address the reader in second-person voice and the movie fundamentally changes that dynamic by giving the little boy a name (Ted, a ha, I see what they did there) and a lot more specific backstory and motivation, but also by extending the narrative well beyond the point where the little boy receives the last truffula seed to encompass germinating and planting said seed, convincing his entire town that trees really are important, and the beginnings of multiple sapling truffulas and (non-grickle-)grass regrowing out in the former-wasteland-that-was-formerly-to-that-a-forest, AND … hold onto your literary-preservation monocles … the return of the Lorax and his reconciliation with the Once-Ler. I KNOW. The ambiguous ending of the book is supposed to leave a reader feeling like they really need to go out and protect some green space, whereas the happy goodtimes ending of the movie seems to want nothing more than to have everyone leave the theater on a vibe of “Everything’s fine, glad that all worked out ok!” Which is a slight undercutting of the original intent.

Which is not to say that it was a bad movie or attending it was a miserable experience or anything. Some of the changes and enhancements could arguably be called positive. In the book the wasteland around the Once-Ler’s place looks a little dark and weird, whereas in the movie it’s positively terrifying. And the Once-Ler gets a lot more depth and complex, conflicted motivations in the movie, and comes across as sympathetic if flawed instead of just a short-sighted jerk to be pitied. In the book his foremost intention all along was to make as much money as possible as fast as possible with no regard for the consequences, while completely ignoring the Lorax’s warnings and concerns; in the movie he really doesn’t want to cause harm and does try at first to accommodate the Lorax, only to end up on a slippery slope of compromise and temptation. And that’s actually a good way of sidestepping the possibility that some impressionable young mind might think the takeaway of The Lorax is supposed to be “Don’t be a Once-Ler” which is a simple enough dictum because the Once-Ler is such an obvious a straw man. And maybe, sorta, kinda that justifies the uplifting redemption of the movie version of the Once-Ler. Opinions no doubt will vary.

I will give the movie full (possibly even extra) credit for one amusing bit of business, though, to tie back into the synergy theme. There’s a trippy musical montage that illustrates the Once-Ler’s catastrophic descent into allowing himself to be ruled by corporate greed, and it includes a lot of choice lyrics about hypocrisy and rationalization and so on. And there’s a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it gag near the end of the song where the Once-Ler is ticking off all the terrible results of his operation (and how he doesn’t care much about them), one of which is “and the PR department is LYING.” The imagery accompanying that lyric has a disembodied set of hands shoving a Thneed into the Lorax’s hands, and another set of hands snapping a photo with a bright flash, which cuts to a huge billboard utilizing that image emblazoned with the words … “Lorax Approved!”

I can’t prove it, of course, but I really like to think that whoever managed to work that throwaway joke into the movie did so in order to make a point. Of course it’s ridiculous to try to associate the Lorax with SUVs, or to use the anti-consumerist Lorax as any kind of commercial mascot at all. But it is going to happen because that’s the way of the world. It’s just a self-serving lie, the same way that the vast majority of advertising is all self-serving lies. So calm down and don’t confuse it with the Lorax selling out, because it is literally a case of the advertisers falsely putting words in the little fella’s mouth. And not to get all meta, but a fictional character is even easier to manipulate and appropriate than a real flesh-and-blood spokesperson. But in the end, it’s all manipulation of perception. And you can choose to think about how that manipulated message came together, and you can choose to disbelieve it.

All of which, if it’s really there at all, is aimed at me and not the little guy and his age-cohort, of course. He liked the movie, for what it’s worth, particularly the ending, because it was happy, but also the big fat comic relief bar-ba-loot, too. He actually got a little freaked out by the action-blockbuster-style climax in which the villain (the new bad guy who filled the void left when the Once-Ler went into seclusion) and his goons chased Ted through the city trying to steal the last truffula seed, which to be fair was pretty intense with lots of racing around and shouting and implied danger, but I let him climb into my lap and we made it to the payoff. It remains to be seen if he’ll ever ask if we can get the movie on DVD at home, when we already have the 70’s cartoon. I tend to think that despite the flash and padding of the new version and the magic experience of seeing it bigger than life in the theater, he’ll still prefer the old adaptation that’s more faithful to the book. Or, again, maybe that’s just me.