Monday, June 25, 2012

Doesn't hurt to ask

I know I didn’t ever get around to any updates on my job last week, but trust me, you didn’t miss much. Only a portion of last week technically counted as summer, but it already feels very much like the languid season around here, with lots of empty cubicles. Granted, a fair number of those belong to people who just happen to be on business travel or out at training or whathaveyou, but there’s a few vacationers in the mix as well.

That’s a little bit dangerous for me, as I start to get the notion of summer vacation embedded in my mentality in late June when I’m not actually scheduled for a week at the beach until late August. And although I’ve always made rationalized allowances (especially for myself) about how it’s to be expected that productivity will gradually wind down in advance of coming to a complete halt during time off, I suspect it would be pushing it to go too far into coasting mode eight weeks out from my own vacation. Even the recent weather, which has been brutally hot and humid as if we’re much deeper into the heart of summer, isn’t likely to provide me with much cover if I start phoning it in much more blatantly and continue to do so for two months. Thus, on we go.

But speaking of the weather (which I'm acutely aware of on a Monday morning after another scorching weekend, during which the property management of course had the A/C in all the offices turned off), my contracting boss did make me laugh on Friday. I bumped into him and asked how everything was going, and he said he was just looking forward to calling it a day and starting the weekend. Then he told me that he had been talking earlier with the acting director (as I mentioned, lots of people have been out of the office lately, including the director, who in turn leaves an acting director in charge during her absence) and tried to impress upon her that the entire office should be given 59 minutes leave. The 59 Minute Rule is common enough around the agency, but almost always on the day before a holiday, long weekend, or something similar, none of which applied to the weekend of June 23 and 24. As the acting director was well-aware, she asked my contracting boss why she should institute 59 minutes. And, dry and deadpan as always, my boss told her/realted to me: “Because it’s so hot.”

I could not argue with that, and wouldn’t have been able to if I had been in charge of the decision making, which I suppose is the reason why I’m never asked to be the acting director. Well, one of many reasons, really.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Whedonday Grab Bag (WHEDON WEEK - Part Five)

Happy birthday, Joss! And many more. May you live at least another 48 years and spend every one of them writing, directing, producing, and maybe even branch out into baking cookies. (What? I love cookies.)

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And now ... Whedon Miscellany!!! Which, I swear, was my plan for Part Five all along. So with the week getting slightly interrupted by skipping Thursday, it's just as well that these little extra bits wind up on Saturday!

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I haven't even touched on Dr. Horrible's Sing-along Blog this week, but it is of course one of the finest excursions of whimsy the 21st century has seen so far, full stop. And I would be remiss if I did not at the very least give a shout-out to Bad Horse.

I wouldn't go so far as to say that the Thoroughbred of Sin is my wife's favorite character in the works of Whedon, but it's fair to say that Bad Horse is probably her favorite concept. Because he's a real horse!

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I've mentioned in the past that my wife and I have made NBC's Thursday night sitcom lineup appointment televison for pretty much the entirety of our cohabitation. So we've seen more or less every episode of The Office, including the ones which were directed by Whedon, "Business School" and "Branch Wars". Of course it's "Business School" that we remember best, and that's because it's the one with the bat in the B story, as well as Jim pretending to be turning into a vampire to freak Dwight out, which aligns so perfectly with Whedon's sensibilities. Whedon didn't write the episode himself, or come up with either the bat trapped in the office or Jim's prank, he really was just working for hire on a show he loved featuring writers and actors he enjoyed working with, and things lined up just so. But I still like to think that he put enough of himself into the job that there's a good reason why I could barely remember what the A story was from "Business School" until I looked up the episode title on Wikipedia.

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Joss Whedon exists in Clix form.

That is fricking sweet.

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That's it for Whedon Week! Thanks for reading. Grr. Arg.

Friday, June 22, 2012

All seriousness (WHEDON WEEK - Part Four)

Here’s something a little odd that I’ve noticed about Joss Whedon’s works as a whole, something that I was reminded of during The Cabin in the Woods. Wait, wait, come back! I promise this isn’t going to be another 2000 words about Cabin! It’s just a starting point, so hang in there.

Although much of the pleasure of watching Cabin in the Woods comes from the fact that the layers of stories are simultaneously somewhat familiar and yet a little bit off, and the audience (particularly the horror buffs therein) must try to figure out exactly what is going on and why (until Sigourney Weaver makes the Big Explanatory Speech at the end), there is a viewpoint character of sorts: Truman, who is a kind of generic security enforcer within the facility from which the sacrifice scenarios are orchestrated. Truman is newly assigned to the operation, so he gets to ask the questions which prompt the other characters to provide exposition to things they already know. And when things start to go off the rails in the third act, Truman is basically the only one who expresses any doubts about what the facility is responsible for unleashing. Within Cabin’s world, everyone who works at the facility is to some extent twisted and arguably evil, whereas Truman is noble and uncorrupted, and pretty stoic to boot.

Truman is portrayed by Brian White. Brian White happens to be black. He is, in fact, the only black character in the movie (with any lines, at any rate) which is not exactly a social critique I am leveling at Whedon, or not one I’m going to single him out for, at any rate. Most mainstream Hollywood movies have predominantly white casts, and to a certain extent you could even argue that the direct homage to classic slasher flicks necessitates a somewhat non-diverse collection of characters. And there is a biracial actor in the cast, as well: Jesse Williams, who plays one of the five teens trapped in the titular cabin. Tellingly, he plays Holden, aka The Scholar archetype. Not The Jock, and definitely not The Fool. The bookish, serious one.

Not too long after I saw Cabin in the Woods, my wife and watched a few episodes of Buffy, including “Beauty and the Beasts” which is an Oz-centric episode which just happens to include the one and only appearance of Buffy’s school counselor, Mr. Platt. Mr. Platt is solicitous and sincere. He’s also black. I think that was the moment where this entire trend really solidified in my mind.

I should state upfront that I think it is an unmitigatedly good thing when actors of color are cast in parts that don’t inherently have some kind of racial component. Truman, Holden and Mr. Platt could all have just as easily been white guys and it wouldn’t have changed the stories (their individual arcs or the encompassing narratives) an iota. I certainly don’t think that if a black actor gets a part it should be because that’s the only logical choice, because the character is some kind of inner-city stereotype or whatever.

Here’s what’s weird, though. Arguably one of Whedon’s greatest strengths is his aptitude for witty dialogue. He can pull off epics of fantasy, blend mythology and modern life with metaphoric resonance, and he’s hugely into strong female characters who make the world a better place for gender relations, but on top of all that, he is really funny. If you polled a bunch of Whedon fans about their favorite characters, I suspect you’d get a lot of Xander from Buffy, and Wash from Firefly, or Anya from Buffy (my favorite) or Oz (my wife’s). And what those characters all have in common is that they are quick with the one-liners, non-sequitors or sarcastic asides or whatnot. To some extent, they’re clowns, and the audience may be just as likely to be laughing at them in their cluelessness or inappropriate behavior as with them and their incisive/acerbic commentary. But by just about any measure, they’re often the best part of any episode.

But Xander and Anya and Oz and Wash are all white. If you start running through other prominent black characters from the Whedonverse, you can’t help but notice that the Venn diagram of “funny characters” and “black characters” has zero overlap. There’s Kendra the vampire slayer from season two of Buffy, and Principal Wood from season seven. Kendra is so serious it’s like she has no emotions at all (her backstory is she was raised to be a slayer from birth, with little to no time for personal growth) and Principal Wood has the tragic background of being the orphan son of a murdered-slayer mother. Over in Firefly, there’s the bounty hunter Jubal Early, and in the movie Serenity there’s the man known only as The Operative. Both are straight as heart attacks, with weird villainous codes of honor. Of course those codes make a nice contrast with Mal Reynolds, who is highly morally flexible but still the hero of the saga, but the fact remains, honorable is rarely funny.

In The Avengers, Nick Fury is played by Samuel L. Jackson. He gets a couple of pretty good lines off in the course of the movie, including one that really made me laugh, but never in a situation where Fury is trying to be funny. (The big laughline for me was about gamma radiation sometimes being dangerous, which is a massive understatement since gamma rays created the Hulk, which is more of an inside between-Whedon-and-the-comic-nerds-in-the-audience joke since Hulk hasn’t been properly introduced into the narrative at that point.)

If I’m going to go all armchair psychologist (and it’s my blog, so why the hell not) it’s almost as though Whedon’s thought process has consistently gone something like this: he feels a deep commitment to promoting diversity. Therefore, he will include black characters in his stories. However, he refuses to traffic in negative stereotypes in any way shape or form. So much so, in fact, that he will deliberately avoid even the slightest semblance of such. No one will ever be able to accuse him of minstrelsy. No one can say “the black guy is just there as ethnic comic relief.” Quite the contrary. There will be nothing comical about the black character at all. Ever. Not even in the cool, fun, everybody loves the jokester, everybody loves that about Whedon’s writing kind of way. The black character will be taken seriously because the black character will take him/herself very, very, extremely, crushingly seriously.

Which kind of makes me wonder what would happen if Whedon made a black character his main protagonist in some future story. Because Buffy Summers and Mal Reynolds and Tony Stark? They get off amazing punchlines all the time, too, in between their moments of pathos and their bouts of kicking ass and taking names. Which would win out – Whedon’s standard heroic template, or his standard no-clowning stance on persons of color?

I may be conjuring conclusions where they aren’t really merited. I’ve only seen a few episodes each of Angel and Dollhouse and for all I know there’s a hilarious, sardonic, popcult-savvy snark-meister who also happens to be black in either or both of those shows. But the trend as I see it is the trend as I see it, and I think it’s kind of a shame. I came up with the hypothetical train of justification above in large part because I can understand it. I empathize totally with wanting to do the right thing and trying to safeguard it from accidentally turning into the wrongest thing. But at the same time I believe that the best path toward equality is found in actually treating people as equals, not in treating certain people with exaggerated deference to make up for the past or overcompensate for prejudices. Portraying a gravitas-wreathed black character without a hint of shucking and/or jiving might give (sheltered, white) people a new way of thinking about others of different backgrounds, but maybe doling out the trademark Whedon-zingers equitably might cause (sheltered, white) people to stop seeing the superficial differences at all?

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Inching upwards

I had just gotten used to the idea that we might be done with the heavy emphasis on nursemaiding our offspring, when 3 a.m. Thursday morning found the little guy suddenly (and shriekingly) ill with some kind of gastrointestinal bug. I bailed on work on Thursday to stay home with the kids; normally that wouldn’t be necessary on what is typically a day off for my wife, but she had other business to attend to (in the realm of new jobs and large-scale career transitions, which I’ve been reluctant to post about because things were still tentative, but look for more info on that hereabouts soon) and, honestly, it’s not that hard to twist my arm and get me to play hooky. And while the 3 a.m. interlude was heartbreaking for how intensely distressed the little guy was in the moment, it passed reasonably quickly, he went back to sleep, and when he woke up at his normal time he was pretty much his normal self, with a healthy appetite and no major complaints for the rest of the day.

At any rate, as always, not going to work meant that I never quite got around to blogging. I’m cheating a bit and backdating this entry to Thursday (because that’s where it belongs) but you are not going crazy if you swear it didn’t really go online until Friday. (Also, Whedon Week will get Part Four later today and Part Five will be pushed into tomorrow. So it goes.)

It’s not easy being responsible for a pair of precocious, willful and energetic tykes, one going on four years old and one closing in on fifteen months. But it is getting easier, however slowly and painfully. Not too long ago I likened the experience of parenting our little ones to crawling uphill over gravel, which might have been overstating the difficulty and/or unpleasantness somewhat, but at least made my wife laugh. But my point was that however exhausting, frustrating and at time painful the process may be, it is a process and it slowly yields progress, as well. The natural, human-nature tendency, for both my wife and myself, is to focus on the ecstasies and the agonies. There are moments when the little guy comes up with something off the wall, like an abstract drawing he makes at school which he describes as “a grape tree … on the beach … in Africa.” And then there are moments where he flat-out refuses to do something simple that he has done a million times before, like brush his teeth at bedtime, apparently out of sheer orneriness. But in between those highs and lows there are (as I try and try to remind myself) lots of smaller moments that really do indicate incremental gains. He’s sweetly, spontaneously helpful sometimes, and while that’s also generally in those areas where the task at hand is something we’ve done a million times before, at least the outcome is in line with what we’d like to expect: we go over it again and again and again and finally, eventually, he does internalize it. It can be supremely enervating by the time we get up to the 900th repeated request, but if it takes 1000 repetitions for the little guy to get it, at least the eventual getting-it does exist out there somewhere.

Which is even more important to bear in mind where the little girl is concerned. My biggest fear (of late) is that I will find myself unwilling to go over something with her 1000 times when I already went over it 1000 times with her brother. That’s grossly unfair to her, of course; it’s not her fault she was born second, and she deserves better than to have me say I feel like I’m already used up. It’s just a tricky balancing act, knowing that molding and guiding a developing human being is a long process of cumulative effects, not a do-it-once-and-its-done proposition, and knowing that we have to make it through that process twice, and there really are no shortcuts, and just generally being ok with that.

Well, maybe there are quasi-shortcuts, like my oft-mentioned weakness for straight-up bribery. Did you know that Disneyland recently converted their entire California Adventure attraction into a life-sized recreation of Radiator Springs from Cars? Importantly, the little guy does not know this – yet. My wife and I looked into it and verified that children must be at least 40 inches tall to ride all the rides. The little guy tops out at about 39 inches as of now, so he’s getting there physically while mentally he is so squarely in the prime target audience window it hurts. It seems inevitable at this point that we will have to figure out a way to get to Anaheim within the next twelve months or so, and I would be shocked if we don’t somehow incorporate the promise-of-reward/threat-of-withholding associated with Carsland into our ongoing behavioral discipline of the little guy sooner than later. With luck, the little girl will help us out by fixating on some Disney property herself right around the same time, so that we can similarly cajole her along with some semblance of resource efficiency. But we shall have to wait and see.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

New adventures with old friends (WHEDON WEEK - Part Three)

So about eight years ago, Joss Whedon signed on with Marvel Comics to be the writer of a monthly comic, Astonishing X-Men. I guess he had nothing else going on at the time? Or possibly it was the realization of a lifelong dream, which I suggest only half-jokingly; there are a surprising number of successful entertainers in various mediums who, apparently, really don’t feel as if they’ve done everything they ever wanted until they get to tell comicbook stories for a mass audience. By 2004 I, personally, was getting a little burnt out on the X-Men in particular, so I didn’t follow along on that excursion of Whedon’s at the time.

Of course you can’t get burnt out on something unless you spend a lot of time on it to begin with, and X-Men comics were front and center of my collection for a long, long while. I was a lifelong Green Lantern fan, of course, but for a decent stretch I was more of a fan of the concept than the played-out, wheel-spinning issues that were available on the newsstand every four weeks, and I wouldn’t come back to picking up new Green Lanterns religiously until close to the end of high school. During the adolescent sweet spot, though, ages eleven twelve and thirteen? There were two comics I was really into: Spider-Man and X-Men. For very different reasons.

Spider-Man will probably always stand as the pinnacle example of the Everyman hero, and that’s what he meant to me. I could relate to Spidey. He had money problems, and family problems, and girl problems, and both respect and self-respect problems. The message, smuggled into every Spider-Man adventure and aimed squarely at the adolescent-perpetually-on-the-verge-of-despair, is that you can have all those kinds of problems, even all at once, and life will still go on. You might even score a victory here and there, now and then, if you just hang in there. (Remember, Spider-Man can’t fly. He swings through the city streets, hanging at the end of a very thin thread. Just sayin’.) There’s something vastly reassuring about Spider-Man, not exactly the “Everything is going to be fine” of Superman, but “Mostly everything is going to be all right, or close enough.”

The X-Men, on the other hand, I could not relate to at all. Abilities derived from radioactive arachnid bites notwithstanding, Spider-Man is really just a nerdy white boy from New York, and the vast majority of his problems come down to petty annoyances and indignities. Generously include New Jersey in the scope of greater NYC, and all of that applies to me as a kid. The X-Men literally belong to a different species, and they hail from foreign lands and varied exotic ethnicity, and they attend a private boarding school, and their entire existence is rooted in fear that they’ll be hunted down and exterminated. They don’t have fitting-in problems, they have genocide problems. They don’t have girl troubles, they have starcrossed tragic love affairs gone wrong. And so on. None of the histrionic melodrama that overflowed in the X-Men’s world really applied to me and my life, not even symbolically, but I was hypnotized by it all the same. Really, literature is intended to serve one of two purposes: helping us better understand ourselves, and helping us understand others who are not like ourselves. Spider-Man achieved the former, and X-Men, the latter.

In order to hit those crazy, life-undreamed-of highs, though, X-Men had to rely on serialized storytelling that put televised soap operas to shame. So ultimately, I credit X-Men comics with transforming me from someone who enjoyed comicbooks and would read an issue of Superman here and an issue of Fantastic Four there, into someone who absolutely had to have every single issue as it was published so that I could keep up with the ongoing developments in the sweeping grandeur of the whole saga. That inspired the kind of devotion that could, and did, lead to burnout farther down the road.

Lucky for me, I have likeminded (yet not identically minded) friends, like my buddy Clutch, who did pick up all the issues in Whedon’s run on Astonishing X-Men, and he loaned them to me recently so that I could finally see how the man acquitted himself playing entirely in someone else’s sandbox. I basically had my answer (which, SHOCKINGLY, is “quite well indeed”) in the whereabouts of the first page of issue #1.

Whedon chose Kitty Pryde as his main viewpoint character, which is a thoroughly unsurprising thing for the man most associated with Buffy to do. So the first issue begins with Kitty’s internal monologue, and soon enough she drops in the word “continuity”. It’s a perfectly valid use of the word, in context, as Kitty is pondering how the Xavier School has been rebuilt (after recent plot developments penned by other authors) to look exactly as it always did before, to help minimize psychological distress by creating a sense that things will continue as they always have and the present is connected to the past &c. But of course “continuity” is a loaded word in comicbooks, as it refers to the ongoing serialized nature of those universes, and how every published story (unless specifically contra-indicated) is canon and must build upon and take into account what has gone before. So Whedon is very plainly putting forth a statement of intention to the readers, presumably dedicated X-Men fans, who took the leap of faith and picked up his new series: Hi, I’m Joss, and I am well aware of what continuity is and that the X-Men have a lot of it. I have no desire to be held in contempt for violation continuity. I’m here to play by the rules. Trust me, it’ll be fun.

Not long after that there’s an even more overt nod to continuity which further burnishes Whedon’s credentials. Kitty passes through the front door of the school and remembers a time when she stormed angrily out the same doors, and in the panel artwork her recollection is superimposed on the image. The whole recollection is also a near-perfect recreation of an iconic panel from an issue of the X-Men that came out in 1983. Clearly this is not just “hey, I dig that the X-Men have a history, I read every issue that came out last year” but rather “son, I been reading X-Men comics since before you were born.” Fair enough.

That’s not the end of paying homage to the past, either. Throughout the course of his run (twenty-four regular issues and one giant-size edition to wrap everything up) Whedon delights in playing with elements of X-Men continuity, sometimes both reinventing and paying reverent homage in the same go. The artistic echoes continue, as well. I’m sure a lot of people would say that the best example of this is when, facing a reconstituted Hellfire Club later on, Kitty has a very Wolverine moment and gets to say “Now it’s my turn!” – different character but same dialogue as a classic moment, same composition in the artwork. My personal favorite, though, comes late in the run as the X-Men manage to turn the tables on an entire alien army by linking minds telepathically and cooperatively weaving a web of lies as a feint. Cyclops, enabled by the psychic powers of his girlfriend Emma Frost, broadcasting “To me, my X-Men” just like Professor Xavier used to back in the day – that was killer, and got a hearty nod of appreciation from me. (It probably would have gotten something more voluble if I hadn’t been sitting on the train during morning rush hour at the time.)

I think the best thing an established writer can do when working with someone else’s properties is make the most of the pre-existing elements that make those properties viable and beloved, while also bringing to bear his own greatest strengths. And I think that is exactly what Whedon did on Astonishing X-Men. He did not radically upset the mutant apple cart. He added to the X-Men mythology, sometimes deepening what was already there, sometimes creating new concepts which nonetheless feel very much of a piece with the whole. He wrote some great dialogue which had that stylistic Whedon snap to it, but which seemed very natural coming out of the mouths of the characters. (And he did it all without once mentioning vampires! Sure there was some chosen one prophecy and a lot of girls-who-kick-ass, but no vampires!) All in all, he knocked it out of the park, and if there should come a time in the near future where Marvel announces he’s embarking on yet another series of superhero comics for them, that would probably be enough of a draw to get me back in the shops on Wednesdays once again, jonesing for my fix.

Terror Incarnate (Black Swan)

Stunning admission of the day: I am not exactly one of the most physically adept creatures to ever walk the Earth. I never played organized sports at any level, and never particularly demonstrated any hidden prowess in twelve years of public school gym class. I’m almost entirely sedentary by nature, and there’s no doubt a huge Nature v. Nurture debate wrapped up in that, but suffice to say I’ve been more prone to inactivity for basically as long as I can remember. I have nothing but respect and admiration for people who are physically fit and have really high-end somatic skillsets. The closest I’ve ever come to really applying myself to anything involving rigorous physicality was when I gave myself over entirely to the music department in high school: marching band, concert band, chorus, showchoir, school musicals. OK, concert band and chorus aren’t really relevant on a list of things that are physically demanding, but marching band had its moments, and the choreography of show choir and musicals was especially taxing for me. Those experiences only heightened my inherent fascination with dancers, who combine something I love (music) with something I’m terrible at (precise and graceful movement).

The 1001 Movies Blog Club assignment this week is Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan, which was a movie that had been hanging around on my personal should-see list for a while. When it came out in theaters I took notice because of my above-cited interest in ballet. Then the critical analysis floating around made it apparent that some people thought the movie was brilliant and daring, and some people thought it was ludicrous camp, and anything that inspires such strong and divisive reactions is something I want to get my own take on. And then it got nominated for some Academy Awards, and Natalie Portman actually won one. With the Club giving me one more reason to finally check it out, I happily accepted the assignment.

I believe a lot of people would use terms like “provocative” or “taut” or “psychologically thrilling” to describe Black Swan, and I don’t dispute any of those but my experience was constantly feeling like the movie was this close to turning into a full-blown horror movie. As I have mentioned before, I love horror movies, so I certainly don’t mean that negatively. I just wondered how that seemingly hadn’t occurred to anyone else who commented on the film. I suppose, at the end of the day, some elements (supernatural killers, buckets of blood) make it universally easy to brand certain movies with the horror label, while other things are more subtle and subjective and are terrifying only in the eyes (and minds) of certain beholders.

(SPOILERS dead ahead, for once for a movie that’s not twenty-six years old or anything. You have been warned.)

If I’m going to go ahead and shelve Black Swan under “horror”, the specific section I’d group it with would be “body horror”. And weirdly enough, body horror is something which I personally find deeply disturbing. Weirdly, because as I led off with, it’s not as though my body is my prized possession and losing any of its capabilities would be devastating. My body is a capability-free lump which my mind inhabits. Maybe that in itself is the key, though, and maybe my innate distrust of my body or some irrational fear that my body secretly resent me means that any meditation on the destruction and degeneration of flesh strikes a deep, horrific chord. In Black Swan, the falling apart is relatively minor, at first: inexplicable scratches on Nina’s shoulderblades, bleeding/peeling cuticles, and the like, but those are still enough to give me the jibblies. With the approach of the movie’s climax, though, there are more outrĂ© metamorphoses, including webbed feet and an elongated neck and whiteless eyes and black feathers (perhaps I begin to see how some people found the film irredeemably campy), plus more than one sequence involving self-mutilating stab wounds. You know, fun stuff.

At the heart of Black Swan is the question of what the hell is going on. Once she wins the dual role of the Swan Queen/Black Swan in her ballet company’s production of Swan Lake, Nina seems to be physically transforming into a bird. And thanks to the wonders of special effects and CGI, there’s at least the possibility that it all looks viscerally real because it is truly happening. But on another level, it may only be happening in Nina’s head, as she deals with the tremendous pressures that come with the bifurcated role, not least of which is the battle fought over her body and soul by outside forces: her mother, who infantilizes her, and her director, who wants to make her his latest conquest.

In the end, though, it turns out to be both of those, and neither. Nina may not actually be growing wings, but she is suffering throughout the entire story, and not simply from stress but from pre-existing mental illness. The body horror all serves as a primal symbol, something visible and filmable, for the more insidious and almost undetectable mental collapse that is slowly killing our heroine. Invisible but not any less terrifying! In fact, the dawning realization that Nina isn’t being driven crazy by the situation at hand but has been crazy all along turned the film into a double-whammy horror flick for me, because corporeal gross-outs might effectively rattle my amygdalae, but losing my mind genuinely is one of my all-time top fears, with an intensity equivalent to how some people feel about dying in a fire, or public speaking. Needless to say, I was transfixed by the painstaking illustration of one fear via another.

I have to give a lot of credit, too, to Aronofsky and to Natalie Portman. The visual palette of the entire movie is really impressive in the way that it both grounds the story in a very (sometimes literally) concrete world, and the way it slides back and forth into more dreamlike territory. It’s a fairly monochrome aesthetic – no opportunity to incorporate the symbolism of black, white and shades of gray goes to waste – with certain shocking exceptions, like the red of blood. If those evocative contrasts weren’t enough, there are mirrors in almost every shot further underscoring the symbolism. (But part of the brilliance of the story is that they never seem out of place: ballet studios always have mirrors behind the barre, dressing rooms need them, bathrooms need them, and small urban apartments make use of them to create the illusion of larger spaces.) Against that backdrop, Portman’s performance is riveting and brave (paradoxically so, since Nina is so timid and uncertain and really hard to root for), all the moreso for the moments where Portman gets to show flashes of Nina’s dark side, which seems like such a wholly different person from the main character that it’s hard to cognitively reconcile they’re played by the same actress.

I was reminded while watching Black Swan of Aronofsky’s movie Pi, another trippy story with a protagonist who is battled over by selfish parties while being battered internally by mental illness. But in Pi, the main character ultimately heals himself, rejecting the blessing and curse of his sanity-abrading faculty for numbers and finding inner peace and contentment. Black Swan is a true tragedy, and Nina finds her freedom in the same manner as Odette in Swan Lake. They both seem to take for granted the notion that there is no gift which is not also its own punishment, and that life comes down to choosing between being exceptional, which is self-destructive, or being normal, which might allow for some happiness (or at least longer life expectancy). Accepting that as a universal truth might be the most horrifying concept of all.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Filling in the gaps (WHEDON WEEK - Part Two)

If I had the chance to sit down with Joss Whedon and really grill him on a variety of topics, I think that Firefly and Serenity would be the first matters to attend to. And certainly a lot of that would come down to very non-grilling non-questions along the lines of me saying “This part? This was awesome. This part? Also AWESOME.” Over and over again. But primarily I would want to get some more info out of Whedon’s head, not about what made it onto the screen but about everything that never had a chance because the series was cancelled after half a season and the movie didn’t become a five-installment franchise monster.

Specifically, I’m dying to know what the long, slow playout of River Tam’s story was originally supposed to be. Of all the foreshortened abridgements fans of the space-western have no choice but to content themselves with, I feel River got the worst deal. I don’t know for sure that Whedon had a highly detailed, epic arc already written in his mind, waiting for seasons two through eight of Firefly to reveal, but I’d like to think it’s so. And, honestly, not to second guess a guy whose creative output I have tremendous respect for, but I like to think that the way River’s story should have gone is something I can at least take a stab at myself.

I say this because, after I had watched Firefly but before I saw Serenity, I actually thought I had River’s deal figured out. As the movie opens and establishes the premise that River is being hunted by the Alliance because she knows a secret, and it has something to do with the Reavers, I thought to myself “Well, of course.” And then, in the actual movie, here’s how it all fits together: River has some latent psychic powers, and while she was being experimented on by the government, she telepathically overheard that the Alliance is directly responsible for the creation of the Reavers, due to use of a happy-gas on a far-off colony planet. So the hunt is on for her to guarantee this information never makes it to the public at large, who would presumably revolt against the Alliance if they knew the Alliance had spawned the most horrific nightmare in the galaxy. That’s it.

That’s it?

I mean, that’s a lot, don’t get me wrong. Serenity had the thankless task of tying up what was intended to be an open-ended tv series via a two-hour blockbuster, and I’d call it a success. Mal and his crew strike a blow for truth and accountability against the monolithic Alliance because River’s secret knowledge does get out to the public, and it’s not as decisive perhaps as blowing up the Death Star with the Emperor on board, but that’s perfectly apt for a grimy series about damaged ideals like Firefly (plus a less-than-complete victory leaves the way open for sequels, which no doubt seemed like a good idea at the time). My main objection is that it gives River something to do as a plot device, but it falls just a little short explaining her as a character.

Now, allow me to describe my own completely non-canonical interpretation of River Tam, which I really thought might have been the way it was supposed to go down all along. She is a victim of the machinations of The Alliance, just as (it turns out in the movie) the Reavers ultimately are. She has a certain scary savagery about her when she goes into fight-n-kill mode, just as the Reavers are scary savages. And even when she’s not actively embodying a terrifying frenzy of violence, she’s more or less inscrutable. Just like the Reavers. Even the names sound eerily similar: River, Reaver. Because … they’re the same?

This was my Grand Theory: River is an embryonic Reaver. Simon “rescued” her from the Alliance laboratories before they could fully complete her transformation, but she has begun the genemetamorphic process which ends with her becoming a slaveringly insane cannibal monster. The Alliance intended to perfect a process for creating super-soldiers but the methods only produce Reavers, which are quietly released into the wild when they show signs of falling apart, just before they become too dangerous to contain. The Alliance keeps trying, determined to work out the bugs in the process. River was just part of the most recent batch which the scientists hoped would be stable but was probably doomed to fail.

And that last part would have propelled her arc through the series. She is slowly but surely turning into a psychotic deathstorm … probably. Maybe not! Maybe the Alliance scientists got her formula just right! On the other hand, maybe they would have gotten it right if Simon hadn’t interrupted, so maybe by trying to save her he’s damned her. There’s no way of knowing short of surrendering her to the Alliance and making her a guinea pig again, and that’s out of the question (except for the inevitable storyline where the possibility is entertained). Instead, only time will tell what happens to her. And during that time, is it better for River to exercise the superhuman strength and reflexes the experiments gave her, for whatever advantage that brings to Serenity and its crew? Or does every moment in which she taps into those reserves actually hasten the transformation from human girl to animalistic atrocity? (Yes, I am a sucker for the “my superpowers are KILLING ME!” trope.) Can she ever be cured – not via successfully completing the efforts of the Alliance, but by completely removing all of the enhancements, ensuring she won’t become a Reaver by taking away the sci-fi kung fu embedded in her brain? Does the rest of the crew accept her as their personal pet nightmare, or gradually turn on her?

And so on. I truly feel like the seeds of this are right there in the extant material, right down to the Crowning Moment of Awesome finale in Serenity, wherein River single-handedly wrecks an entire swarm of Reavers. How is she able to do that? To my mind there’s three possible explanations:
1. Solely because of her Alliance augmentations. (Which means the Alliance already has the means of creating bio-weapons that could wipe out their big mistake, the Reavers. This begs the question of why they haven’t gone ahead and done so already.)
2. Because of the unique combination of her Alliance augmentations with her one-in-a-trillion naturally psychic prodigy brain. (I think this is actually the canon explanation.)
3. Because you fight fire with fire, you catch a thief with a thief, and you kill Reavers with a super-Reaver. The Alliance hasn’t seriously attempted wiping out the old Reavers with new Reavers because there’s profound flaws in that logic. But one shiny new escaped proto-Reaver can easily hold her own against the older feral versions. (This is the explanation I’m partial to, myself.)

No matter how long I think about it, or leave it alone and then come back to it, I really like “River knows where the Reavers came from because she telepathically eavesdropped on Alliance personnel thinking about it” less and less, and prefer my imaginary “River knows where the Reavers came from because she is one and comes from there herself” take. So yeah, face to face with Whedon, I would want to lay that all out for him and hear him admit that, indeed, if Firefly had run off 144 episodes or so, that’s exactly how River’s saga would have unfurled. Or, if not, at least hear Whedon say that while it’s not the way he would have gone it is a pretty nifty idea.

Monday, June 18, 2012

The end of the masquerade (WHEDON WEEK – Part One)

Some time after The Avengers had a chance to really sink into my brain, I realized something interesting about it, which just so happens to overlap with something I always found intriguing about Buffy the Vampire Slayer. What a perfect subject with which to kick off Whedon Week!

There are arguments to be made for and against the position that Buffy Summers is a superhero. She has powers and abilities far beyond those of mere mortals, and she altruistically protects civilization in general against the forces of darkness and evil. She’s even died and come back to life the requisite number of times to fit right in with the comicbook set. On the other hand, she doesn’t wear a cape or a mask (or much spandex, except where fashionably appropriate) or have a codename (“Slayer” being more of a job description with seriously ancient tradition behind it). It’s probably no surprise that, although I see both sides of the debate, I’m enough of a superhero fan to come down firmly in the yeah-she-pretty-much-is camp.

The lack of mask and absence of codename constitute the intriguing part for me, though, especially when looking at the long arc of the entire BTVS series. Early on there’s a certain amount of focus on Buffy’s secret identity. Her mother doesn’t know anything about her vampire-slaying activities, nor does anyone at school except her closest confidantes. Even without a costumed get-up, somehow Buffy gets away with her double life by virtue of the following factors:

- it’s usually pretty dark wherever she ends up fighting monsters
- the people she rescues from monsters tend to get knocked out, or faint, before she arrives
- she moves like a blur in the heat of battle
- she’s quick-witted enough to come up with plausible alibis, which people are inclined to accept at face value because the only other explanation would involve the supernatural

But as the seasons roll on and on, a lot of that conceit gets left by the wayside, until eventually Buffy’s mom knows all about Slayers and Watchers and vampires and demons. And just before she leaves Sunnydale High, Buffy gets an award from her fellow seniors honoring her for being the Class Protector, which is a fairly overt acknowledgment of their limited but nevertheless established awareness of who Buffy is and what she does. As BTVS continues beyond high school, the stories get deeper and darker and there’s less time for secret identity shenanigans, so it’s all for the best that the whole plot-complicating device gets left behind altogether.

What I was struck by while ruminating further on The Avengers is that, while it is 110% a comicbook movie all about a team of superheroes, there’s not a secret identity to be found anywhere in there, either. Everybody in the world of the film knows that Captain America is Steve Rogers and that Iron Man is Tony Stark and that the Hulk is Bruce Banner. And there’s a vast number of legit reasons why this should be so: it’s easier, within the narrative, for SHIELD to assemble these future Avengers if they’re tracking down real people and not codenames. It’s smoother, in writing the script, to include scenes of interpersonal conflict if there aren’t any artificial barriers between the characters and their personas. It’s more affecting, when directing the actors, to be able to film their real faces and not just masks, whatever mode the character happens to be in at the moment. And so on (and I should also mention of course that the reason why no one preserves their secret identity in The Avengers is because they had already dispensed with them in the preceding Iron Man, Hulk, Cap and Thor movies anyway) . I’m not arguing with the choice to forgo elaborate secret identity hijinks in the slightest.

Sometimes I throw stuff in here just to crack my wife up.

But it’s noticeable, at least to a lifelong geek like me, especially when you consider just how insanely faithful to the source material comics the movies are. When you watch Captain America, that is pretty much just how the comic book version’s origin went down, give or take. Ditto for Iron Man. They captured the essence of each character totally, by using practically all of the details that had been established beforehand, with the glaring exception of secret identities. Those were apparently the first thing chucked right out the window.

As I’ve already diagrammed indirectly, I’m not entirely sure how much credit for the lack of secret identities in The Avengers should go to Joss Whedon himself. Arguably extremely little, since he didn’t write the screenplays for any of the groundwork-laying films that set it up. But it was Whedon who was tasked with portraying Steve Rogers’s assimilation into the modern world after going into suspended animation in the 40’s, and he could have made hiding-behind-the-mask a part of that. If I thought about it long enough I could probably come up with other layered disguises that might have formed alternate Avengers films. But I’m not surprised that he didn’t bother needlessly complicating things like that. Because, as it turns out, that’s what secret identities are in storytelling terms far more often than not: needless complications.

When we think of superheroes we usually think of Superman, and everything ends up being an extension of (or deliberate inversion of) everything he’s made of. Superman is the exceptional case where the secret identity makes some sense: he’s invulnerable so there’s no way for his enemies to physically get the drop on him, which means they’d inevitably think of going after his loved ones, which means he has to live two separate lives, one where he makes enemies and one where he has loved ones. But Marvel Comics, from whence The Avengers hail, are not so much about invulnerable powerhouses like Superman (well except for Thor, but NB: no secret ID for the god of thunder, and therefore they actually have to take a random moment in the film and address the fact that Thor’s vulnerable human love interest is being very carefully guarded so Thor’s enemy Loki can’t strike at him through her) and therefore one of the major arguments in favor of secret identities isn’t present to begin with.

And you can kind of see this whole evolution of a line of thinking in Whedon’s work. I’m fairly convinced he was thinking in terms of superhero archetypes when he conceived of Buffy, especially her ongoing tv series iteration. And, as was customary, he went down the checklist and gave her an origin, powers, enemies, allies, a secret identity, etc. etc. Because that’s what you do. Then as his story grew, he realized he didn’t need the secret identity bit after all. By the time he got to directing The Avengers, he had already learned that lesson well, and there wasn’t a moment where he wondered how he was going to shoehorn any classic comic book secret identity elements into the film. By then, he knew the whole trope was unnecessary. Comicbooks have by and large figured this out, too, I should add. It just took Whedon a lot less than forty years.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

WHEDON WEEK - Prologue

I have been meaning for a while now to devote a long stretch of posts to the works of Mr. Joss Whedon, who turns 48 years old this coming Saturday, June 23rd. Given my fondness for glomming onto significant dates and events, I’m officially embarking on WHEDON WEEK which should run through this entire week leading up to the big birthday, which should be some kind of high holy day in the geek calendar, I imagine. (Not that I think “48” has any mystical numerological significance, just to be clear. The birthday is big because it’s Whedon’s, not because of how many years it marks.)

I know I’ve already made much fuss over Whedon, between my obsessive posts about Cabin in the Woods, my weighing in (albeit briefly) on The Avengers, my occasional reminders that my wife and I are, in fact, re-watching every episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and so on. But there remain depths of my fandom yet to be plumbed, some inspired by recent intake of his works and some which I meant to express a while back but failed to sufficiently carve out the time for. So this is a clearing of the decks, and likely the last massive outpouring of pro-Whedon agitprop until … I don’t know, I finish watching every episode of Angel, or Avengers 2 comes out, or something like that.

For what it’s worth, while I’m going to (try to) put up a Whedon-themed post every day, I will also probably throw in some other posts, too, so as not to fall behind on the chronicling of my family life and my other pursuits and so on. So consider this a heads up that on any given day there may actually be multiple posts, and if all this Whedonalia isn’t your thing, you still might find something more suited to your sensibilities if you scroll down a bit (or vice versa, if you’re only coming here for the Whedonalia). Or I might get exhausted and skip a day of posting entirely – we shall see!

Friday, June 15, 2012

Cheap laughs

When I was a kid, my dad would sometimes take me and my Little Bro to his office in Manhattan. Usually this was in late December, when school had already let out for the holidays but the business world was still keeping office hours, even if productivity was close to zero. With his two sons in tow, Dad would take a long lunch and leave a bit early, but he would do at least a bit of work to justify showing up in the first place. He was a middle manager at the time, which meant he had a fair number of occasions throughout the day to visit other people’s desks in his supervisory capacity, or attend meetings in conference rooms, or whatnot. And for those intervals he would leave me and Little Bro in his office, which was an actual central-casting early 80’s American Businessman office with walls and a closing door and a window overlooking downtown and everything.

My dad’s office also had the expected large desk and leather chair, as well as a side table with a couple of humbler seats. Usually (read: always) I would pull rank as the older sibling and sit at my dad’s desk, leaving Little Bro to the side table. We would amuse ourselves by just scribbling away for hours; if there was one thing in abundance where my dad worked, it was corporate-branded stationery supplies, and we went through forests of notepads and oceans of ink drawing whatever our single-digit-aged brains were obsessed with any given year.

But we were kids so of course we couldn’t be counted on to sit quietly and focus diligently all the time. Sometimes we would root through my dad’s desk, together, just to see what we would find. Which was never anything terribly interesting, and this isn’t the beginning of some crazy shocking tale of my dad’s secret life away from home or anything, sorry. But we looked anyway, acting out of our inexhaustible supply of bored curiosity.

One time that boredom led us to start playing with the paperclips in a desk drawer, clipping them together in a long chain, just to keep our idle hands busy. I’m pretty sure we were interrupted in that bit of mindless fiddling by my dad gathering us up for lunch, and I just dropped the chain into the drawer organizer tray with the rest of the loose paperclips and scampered off when summoned, without really thinking about it any more.

At least, not until a long while later, like a week, or maybe even two or three given that the holidays fell in there somewhere, too. My dad came home from work and over dinner told us that he had found the little surprise we had left for him. Little Bro and I had no idea what he was talking about, but my dad was mostly telling the story to my mom anyway, so at least we got to listen to the explanation. Apparently my dad did have cause to use several paperclips a day, holding together various reports and memos and whatnot (he worked in insurance and I’m sure each little sheaf was related to a different policy or whatever, it’s not really important) and of course it becomes a very mechanical process when a form is completed or whathaveyou: stack up the pages, tap their edges and square them off, open the drawer, grab a paperclip, clip the pages together, set the packet in the outbox, repeat. Not the day after he brought us to his office, and not the day after that, but much later he was going through the routine steps, stack, tap, square, open, grab … and grabbed not one paperclip but a whole tinkling chain of them. We had probably clipped together 50 or so, which made for what must have seemed like a never-ending rope of paperclips that came out of the drawer hand over hand over hand until my dad reached the end.

My dad was famously short-tempered when I was little but this memory stands out in my mind because he wasn’t angry at all. He thought the whole thing was pretty hilarious. He laughed as he told the story to my mom, and he said he had laughed sitting there at his desk in the moment. He didn’t even give me and Little Bro the slightest hint of a “don’t mess with grown-ups’ stuff” lecture, either. He was genuinely impressed at how we had pranked him so effectively. Specifically, the length of the fuse on it, the fact that we hooked up so many paperclips but not all of them, so that the odds were good for a while that reaching into the drawer without looking would yield up single paperclips, and then the delayed payoff would come by the time our visit had started to fade from memory. Needless to say, I did not disabuse my father of this notion, even though it couldn’t have been further from the truth. We were linking paperclips because we were bored, and did some but not all because something else came up. No elaborate strategy, really, but I readily recognized the benefit in taking credit for one after the fact.

Read what you will into it, as far as why this particular random anecdote is swimming near the surface of my headspace. The tedium of the workplace from the adult perspective? The tendency to project great motivations and abilities onto our children? Maybe just that this Sunday is Father’s Day. Sometimes things pop into my head for no discernible reason at all, so I suppose a surplus of plausible reasons is no bad thing.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

The Mite Stalker

Sometime in the last week or so, the little girl crossed over from “kinda walking on her own” to “totally walking on her own”. This is not to be confused with “exclusively walking on her own” as she still sometimes gets tired of toddling and/or realizes she can crawl with greater balance and speed, as well as often preferring to be picked up and carried. But all that notwithstanding, her motor coordination is on the rapid upswing. In fact, yesterday when I picked her up from daycare, she was sitting down having her afternoon snack. In her current “older infant” environs, they no longer use highchairs or boosters, just squat little seats low enough that the babies can sit in them and have their feet touch the ground. The providers plop the babies in the chairs and scoot them in to the edge of a table which is just barely high enough to clear the babies’ knees. When I walked into the room, the little girl was sitting with her back to me, but she turned around when she heard my voice, and then proceeded to push herself, and her chair away from the table, stand up, turn around, edge around the chair and walk across the room to me. So there’s no doubt in my mind that when people ask “Is she walking yet?” I can answer with a simple “Yep!” and have the truth on my side. She is (capable of) walking like a champ, and oh man it is on like King Kong.

Did somebody say, bananas?!?!

That’s an apt way of putting it (if I do say so myself) because as the developmental milestone fates would have it, the little guy is currently fine-tuning his building skills. After a long stretch of just wanting to push trains along tracks that I had assembled, he’s starting to take pride and pleasure in laying out their routes himself. He also recently created his own tabletop model of Radiator Springs, using one officially licensed town building playset and assembling the rest of the landmarks mostly out of Legos. So of course just when he’s reveling in large-scale construction projects, his sister is reveling in walking right up to whatever he’s doing and grabbing a random yet somehow keystone handful of it to pull it all apart. It’s a bit traumatic; for the little guy, to see the fruits of his labors upended with little to no warning, and for the little girl, to have her adored big brother volubly freaking out in her face, and even a little bit for me, as I turn into a broken record skipping between two tracks, “No No Little One” and “She’s Just a Baby (She Doesn’t Understand)”.

The heartening realization amidst all of this is that the little guy hasn’t completely turned on his sister, even now that she is a freely ambulatory force of entropic doom in the playroom. He’s not exactly patient like a pint-sized saint, but he bounces around among a variety of responses, all of which I would deem pretty normal. Sometimes he loses it, and says he doesn’t want her around at all, and all manner of other unkind rival sibling spleen-venting. Other times he tries to act like a third parent, lecturing his sister on the house rules (which, to be fair, his mother and I have attempted to convey to him is something we are working on teaching her ourselves). And still other times, he simply dotes on her the same as always and wants nothing more than to hug and kiss her or show her things he thinks she’ll like. So it’s a complicated mixed-bag, but I’m more than willing to take that. I had feared that there would come a reckoning where the little guy would come face to face with no longer being an only child, not even being the child-as-opposed-to-the-baby, but being one of two children with their own ideas and agendas, and that the little guy’s response would be a unilateral, concentrated “I hate her and want her to go away” for a couple of years. But so far, that worst case scenario doesn’t seem to be in play. To which I say, whew.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Harry-ing Experience (The Great Escape)

I was supposed to post a review of The Great Escape last week for the 1001 Movies Blog Club, but ended up devoting the Wednesday post to developments in the (continuously re-invented) Green Lantern mythos. Partly that was because Green Lantern is near and dear to my heart and the topic was timely, but partly that was because I was having a tough time coming up with any kind of meaningful hook or angle with which to approach the film in question. I feel bad about it, though, all the more so because The Great Escape was my personal pick when my turn in the club’s selection process came around again. So, even though I still don’t have an insanely insightful approach to it, allow me to weigh in on the movie, better late than never.

Like so many movies on the master Must-See list, The Great Escape is one which I feel like I’ve always been aware of because its influence is felt so far and wide. It’s overtly homaged in a brilliant Simpsons sequence where Maggie and several other babies attempt to escape from objectivist daycare; it’s referred to, fleetingly but meaningfully, in a joke in Reservoir Dogs; and in both spirit and one or two specifics it informs much of The Shawshank Redemption, just to name a few of my personal favorite instances. But I had never seen the film until this month.

Another example of the film’s reputation preceding itself into my consciousness came thanks to my wife. I made a passing comment about The Great Escape once and she clued me in to how ridiculously popular the movie is in England. Not just popular, but part of a beloved tradition of families gathering around the telly at Christmastime to watch its broadcast, much like my family used to do once a year for The Wizard of Oz, but with less general appreciation for a classic and more deeply felt national pride. I love exposing myself to universally acclaimed works of transcendent art but I also (exceedingly, perhaps) love exposing myself to works that inspire obsession.

For a while there, maybe the first half or two-thirds of the movie, I felt like I was getting onto that wavelength of understanding why The Great Escape could be so ensconced in a collective heart the same way that, say, Gone With the Wind serves for Southerners. Most of the main characters are subjects of the U.K., and they bear up all stiff-upper-lipped under the indignities of prison camp and take command of the situation, earn the loyalty of their fellow POWs from the U.S. and even gain grudging respect from the Nazis. It basically positions the Brits (and Scots and Aussies &c.) as the apex heroes of WWII, by having the breakout from Stalag Luft III stand in for the entire conflict. And said breakout is, in historical fact, a story about British officers so fair play to them there. I just couldn’t help but notice, from my Yank perspective, how the Americans had their role to play in the fictionalized drama but it was unquestionably secondary.

I mentioned the Simpsons above (because it’s virtually impossible to talk about pop culture without invoking them) and now I’m going to do it again, by calling attention to what I have long held is the single most awesome joke the series ever pulled off. In an episode that begins on the last day of school, the children at Springfield Elementary watch the clock and count down to their summer vacation, then run like mad for the exits when the bell rings. As they race away from the building, a lone teacher bursts out of the doors, holding an open textbook in one hand, and calls after them, “Wait! I never got to tell you how World War Two ended!” All of the children stop and turn around in expectant silence. The teacher waits a beat and says, “WE WON!” The children cheer and begin chanting “U! S! A! U! S! A!” and incite a riot including tipping over school buses and starting fires. My friends and I enjoy a good “U! S! A!” chant every now and then, and I always believe we are directly quoting this episode when we so indulge.

Point being, jingoism, I get it. And it’s fascinating how that manifests in The Great Escape not only as us versus them, Allies versus Axis, but also in the big-brother/little-brother dynamic within the Allied forces between the U.K. and U.S. My relationship with my country is complicated with love/hate, but I have to admit that during the sequence where James garner and Steve McQueen and … umm … that other guy dress up and reenact the trio from The Spirit of ’76 to dole out moonshine to the other prisoners on the Fourth of July, I got a bit choked up with sentimental pride. (U! S! A!) And that is a relatively minor, and undeniably silly, bit of business in the overall movie. So it’s not difficult to imagine how the heartstrings of a patriotic Briton would be played like a harp by the rest of the film.

Essentially, for that first 50 – 60% I started out talking about, The Great Escape is a classic heist film. The team comes together, a plan to do the impossible is hatched, and an inordinate amount of pleasure is derived in detailing how various little schemes and cons and displays of cleverness and strength will add up to the big score. (So yeah, add things like Ocean’s Eleven to the list of entertainments with The Great Escape in their DNA.) If the movie had ended at the point where the escapees are popping out of the tunnel one after the other like clockwork, undermining the Wermacht through sheer moxie and plucky determination … well, I suppose that would have been Hogan’s Heroes, basically.

Things get worse.

The movie doesn’t end there, of course, largely because it’s based on a true story and the desire to tell the complete story and honor the memories of the fallen was strong. (Historically-rooted spoilers a’comin!) The escape was meant to liberate two hundred POWs, but only seventy-some made it out before the camp sentinels shut it down. The vast majority of those escapees were subsequently recaptured, as the plans for actually getting out from behind enemy lines slowly and steadily unraveled, which the latter portions of the movie depict in crushing detail. And fifty of the recaptured were summarily executed. So the story does not exactly have a feel-good happy ending, though I suppose that depends on which side of the “we caused disruptive problems for the enemy and that was worth the price paid” debate which closes things out you come down on.

No question it’s an excellent movie, worth watching for a variety of reasons on multiple levels. I’m just not convinced that I should obtain a permanent copy to watch every Christmas myself; one enjoyable viewing should do for me for quite a while.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Rivalry run riot

If you were the type of person who notices the absence of things, you might have been wondering about the dearth of posts about our national pastime so far this spring. Please do not mistake this for an indication that I have not been avidly following the goings-on in the AL East specifically or the MLB as a whole; I have in fact been riveted because the goings-on have been pretty dang nuts. As always, please assume my usual disclaimers, about not particularly wanting to sound like a pompous jerk but realizing I inevitably will anyway and am thus just going to plow on ahead come what may, apply.

We are in uncharted territory here, and by “we” of course I mean my wife and I. Developments through the first sixty games of the season have actually been more or less par for the course for most Yankees fans; surely we’d have nothing against establishing a wide early lead for first place in our division and slowly pulling away, gradually allowing the conversation to pivot from “will New York make the playoffs?” to “will New York break the record for most wins in the regular season?” BUT there’s also nothing wrong and nothing alarming about playing above-.500 ball and fighting it out for the top spot. It keeps things interesting. The differentiator this season is that the Yankees are not battling for first place against the despised Red Sox, or an energized Rays team, or a tenacious Blue Jays squad, but rather an Orioles line-up that seems to finally have everything coming together all at once.

From my wife’s perspective, of course, this completely flips the script. Many a baseball season past I have seen her optimism about the O’s chances slowly dwindle over the first quarter of the season or so, adjusting her hopes from “staying in contention” to “staying above .500” and then “just staying healthy and/or staying out of the clutches of other teams’ poaching so they can try again next year.” But this year she had every reason to maintain a steady level of enthusiasm for her beloved and no longer beleaguered Baltimore. A few scant weeks out from the All-Star break and it does not appear as if the O’s record is a fluke, the product of a soft stretch in the schedule, or anything else easily dismissed. The Orioles have logged some serious time leading the pack all season, and it’s with good reason, as they’ve been playing with impressive determination; the number of extra-inning and come-from-behind wins they’ve notched is already approaching mind-blowing.

The American League East, I’ve said before and will say again, is the toughest division in baseball. (Bring on the expansion teams and the four-division realignment!) This season especially has proven just how tough, as there have been moments here and there where all five teams were boasting winning records at the same time, which is SICK. My wife and I are usually in complete agreement about this point, too, because both of our teams have to reckon with the same number of in-division games every season. We still agree this year (how could we not?) but that is one of the few safe topics at this point. Usually by mid-June I am grumbling about how the Yankees need to string together a few two-out-of-three series and put some distance between themselves and the Rays/Jays/Sox, upon whom I wish nagging minor injuries and locker room discord and whatever else might feed into a serious skid. The formulation this year would sub in the O’s, of course, but that’s not a very diplomatic thing to say to one’s Orioles-cheering spouse. And, truth be told, I do NOT wish injuries or in-fighting on Baltimore, because not only am I happy for my wife’s investment in them but I’ve become somewhat fond of them myself. So I’m weirdly conflicted, and struck appropriately mute.

If anyone ever produced 'Jeter & Jones' as a running tv series, it would be the highest-rated show in my household by a country mile.

For my wife, a big factor has been not wanting to jinx the Orioles, which in this case I do kind of understand (and know that I may in fact get in serious trouble if some kind of tailspin begins shortly after bringing all this up here). I caught one of the O’s announcers just the other day commenting on the fact that Baltimore’s skipper Buck Showalter only recently started making even vague statements about “if we’re going to have a shot in September/October” and basically it’s his job to balance the optimism with the realism, so clearly my wife is following a reasonable example there. And she has the same kind of affection-transferral inner turmoil as I do; I love the Yankees, she loves me, ergo she hates the Yankees a little bit less than she otherwise might. As our relationship has evolved she’s reached the point where, if she can’t be happy for the O’s, she can at least be happy for me. She’s never had to choose between the two with both as viable options, nor have I faced that dilemma with her. Until now!

So there’s been an odd baseball-conversation embargo in the household, propped up by our mutual lack of desire to smacktalk one another. It’s a luxury we can easily afford in June, of course; we’ll see if tensions mount in the fall. If the playoffs started today, both our teams would be in; the Yankees and Rays would have to go to some kind of tie-breaker to determine who got the pennant and who was the first wildcard, and the O’s would be the newly-inaugurated second wildcard (which means, yes, both AL wildcards would be coming out of the East, see above re: SICK). The mind fairly reels. Fortunately we still have some very stable common ground in looking down on the Red Sox, who are currently bottom-dwelling with the lone losing record in the division. (You didn’t think I would let the whole post go by without indulging in some schadenfreude over that, did you? Come ON.)

Monday, June 11, 2012

Fun and excitement

This is the beginning of yet another week at work where half of my department is out of the office for training; the training concerns some of the department’s primary responsibilities and I am (at best) in the secondary tier, so it’s not as if it’s their turn now and will be my turn later. It’s just a fairly quiet stretch of days for a while. At least I was left with one self-contained project to keep myself busy in the interim, but that doesn’t make for terribly compelling content here.

So I suppose I might as well catch everyone up on the weekend, which wasn’t particularly monumental or noteworthy in any flashy, obvious way but that in and of itself kind of makes it fairly noteworthy and maybe even arguably monumental. My wife and I had not made any plans heading into the weekend, and for a moment on Friday night it looked as if my wife might be setting up plans for herself and a friend on Sunday, but those ended up needing a reschedule. So our time was our own, with no one coming to see us and nowhere in particular we needed to be at any set time. That is such a vanishingly rare set of circumstances that I feel compelled to at least acknowledge it. Like so.

If anything approached being red-letter worthy, it might be the fact that I pinpointed with reasonable accuracy the official end of my youth and irrefutable status as a lame old grownup on Saturday morning. I was determined to mow the lawn before it got too unbearably hot, but the gas can in the tool shed was a bit dry, and my car was low on fuel as well, so I headed halfway across town with can in hand (i.e. in trunk of car), because that’s where the nearest Shell station is, and Shell is the gas station that has the cross-promotion with Giant supermarkets, which is where we do most of our non-bulk weekly shopping. So we get discounts on Shell gas if we run our Bonus Card through the reader, and I was bound and determined to make use of that arrangement and fairly proud of myself for lining up getting gas for the lawnmower and gas for the car all in one pump benefitting from the same discount. I didn’t know exactly how much the discount would be (it varies based on how much we’ve spent at Giant lately and how long it’s been since we cashed in the points) but I was reasonably sure it was worth the excursion. In fact, the discount turned out the be 40 cents per gallon, and since the pre-bonus price was $3.35 per gallon, the pump rolled it back to $2.95 once it processed my ID number. And upon seeing that I was about to get a tank AND a can of gas for under $3 a gallon, I threw the horns.

You're too old to rock, no more rockin' for you.

I was completely by myself and I did not make this gesture in any way ironically or to amuse someone, even myself. Some people pump their fist when they cross a certain threshold of personal satisfaction, and some people give their booty a little affirmative shake; I tend to throw the horns. But after the fact, realizing that I had done this reflexively in response to a 12% discount at the gas station, I felt a slight pang of melancholy, knowing there’s really no way of regressing back from that point.

But the lawn got mowed shortly thereafter without me having a heat stroke or anything, and for what it’s worth I ended up at Giant that night, too, after the kids went to bed. But by then I was well beyond caring about whether the things that make me happy are objectively cool or lame and just happy that we had all had the kind of day where things got done at their own pace and other things (like the weekly food run) could be put off until later than usual because it was all very free form. Sunday was much the same, and we managed to coordinate the entire family going to the home improvement store to pick up some pots and plants for a container garden, with time to spare to actually get said garden all set up on the back deck before dinner. So at some point this summer I should be quite contentedly enjoying homegrown tomatoes and peppers and herbs in various combinations, and that goes quite a long way toward making me feel pretty good about where things are at in my life.

And even grown-ups have mini-adventures sometimes, as my wife and I did last night when around 10 p.m. a transformer blew up somewhere in town and blacked out our entire neighborhood. We were watching tv downstairs at the time, but headed upstairs by flashlight to be that much closer to the kids’ rooms, pondering all the while how people managed to function before electronic baby monitors existed. I was somewhat convinced that, robbed of nightlights and room fans, one or both of the children would wake up and be inconsolably freaked out, but they both slept right through. My wife and I killed some time playing with our phones (my wife was texting other people she knows in town to see how extensive the outage was; I was checking the utilities website to see if there was any up-to-the-minute info on restoration time estimates) in hopes that the power would come back and we could reset our alarm clocks and such before going to sleep, but we gave up after half an hour or so, set our phone alarms, and hoped for the best. The power did come back about forty-five minutes after that, necessitating a quick run around the house to shut off all the lights and whatnot that were still on, and this morning ended up normal enough. I guess a matter of minutes in the pitch black except for candlelight is really more of a micro-adventure, but I take my cheap thrills where I can get them.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

The Scion Also Rises

We recently bought a night light for the little guy, who had been steadily growing more and more averse to the total blackout darkness of his own bedroom at night. He was also developing a habit of waking up after just two or three hours of sleep; he’d be tucked in a little before 8 p.m., and then at 10:30 or 11:00, just as my wife and I were getting ourselves ready to bed down for the night, he’d emerge from his bedroom and shuffle down the hall, asking us if it was morning yet. And it’s one thing to get him into bed and turn off the room light when there’s still some fading sunshine around the edges of his curtains and a little ambient incandescence under the bottom of his door, and quite another to convince him to get back in bed and lights out when the sun is long gone and all the house lamps are extinguished, too.

The first night that he really kicked up a fuss, my wife simply relocated the baby monitor (which has a built in nightlight) from the little girl’s room to her big brother’s, as the baby was long-since sound asleep and wouldn’t miss the light, while her mother and I were about to go to bed in the room next door ourselves and didn’t need the electronic audio feed. After that we tried a strand of colored Christmas lights in the little guy’s room, but those ultimately proved to be too much of a distraction in and of themselves, and a couple of nights of being able to hear him thumping his heels on the walls and talking loudly too himself led us inevitably to asking him if we could trust him, as a big boy, to go to sleep even with the colored lights or if we needed to take them away. Bless him, the little guy is generally pretty honest, so he agreed that the colored lights were keeping him awake and we should take them away. Thus, the next trip to the store included purchase of a much more standard and subtler nightlight, which so far is doing the trick.

Although, I suppose having the children not wake up and/or freak out in the dead of night is one thing, but not the entire trick. Another crucial component would be getting the children to sleep in long enough that we parental types don’t have our own cycles interrupted by them at all. My wife and I don’t stay up very late at all (we used to watch The Daily Show semi-regularly; now, hardly ever and never all the way through) and tend to rise pretty early, too. Is it so much to ask that our kids be asleep before we go to bed, and that they don’t wake up until after us? Apparently, it is, at least recently, with little guy and little girl both rising to greet the dawn, sometimes with time to spare. And neither of them is exactly at an age yet where we can just tell them to go back to bed for a little while without bringing forth major crying and screaming that renders the whole point moot.

They say that the sleep deprivation is one of the hardest ordeals of adjustment new parents go through when baby makes three and changes everything. My wife and I have been “new parents” for almost four years now and I for one can attest to that (while at the same time fully acknowledging that the amount of sleep I’ve lost along the way is astronomically dwarfed by my wife’s unsleeping tours of duty in the same span). And I know the circumstances of the moment aren’t going to last forever. The little girl has been teething almost constantly for months and months, but there’s only so many teeth left to come in. The little guy is getting bigger and bigger with energy levels to match, but at the moment he can only blow them off by running around outside under close supervision which isn’t always feasible, but he will eventually get big enough to play on his own. They’ll both settle into something resembling normal sleep-wake cycles and before we know it, they’ll be teenagers fundamentally incapable of ever getting enough sleep but nagged out of bed around lunchtime on the weekends anyway. And that will be all well and good in its bittersweet passage-of-time way, but (and I know I invite the universe to prove me wrong when I say this, but so be it) I really don’t think I will miss the middle-of-the-night and too-early-in-the-morning wake-ups. At all.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Insert "secret identity" joke here

There’s a part of me that has fully processed the fact that science-fiction and fantasy have become genres in which it is acceptable for well-adjusted adults to be interested, and that movies and books and tv shows about superheroes or wizards or aliens are just as likely to be consumed and enjoyed by a broad cross-section of humanity, and not just the smart-yet-socially-awkward. But there’s another part of me that continues to be surprised at how pervasive this mainstream acceptance has become; for instance, looking at the front page of the USAToday.com site and seeing economic reports from Europe and professional sports playoffs scores and recaps of specific Marvel comics given equal real estate on the computer monitor never fails to throw me off.

I know I tend to fall back on “you may have heard” as a rhetorical transitional device a lot, but I always mean it; I only employ that phrase when I think there’s a fair-to-middling chance that you will in fact already have come across the information I’m about to delve into. And I could have led off this post typing “You may have heard that Green Lantern was recently revealed to be gay,” and it would have been fair usage because it is a story that got some national media attention. But I wanted to take a step back for a moment and acknowledge how deeply weird that is to me, to assume that the minutiae of superhero character development is something that might be common knowledge. Yet here we are.

Reversing the sexual orientation of a fictional character that I personally have a sentimental, fannish attachment to, though? That’s not deeply (or even shallowly) weird. I think it’s pretty cool. For the record, just in case you only caught half the gist of the story or if I am in fact breaking the news to you, there have been many Green Lanterns in the comics and here we are not talking about the one who got his own movie in the summer of 2011. We are talking about this one:

The WWII-era man of mystery whose ring was always presented as more of a magic wishing artifact (which happened to manifest its powers as sheets of green flame) than a cosmic peacekeeping weapon. This Green Lantern was the forerunner of the legacy introduced more or less at the dawn of the age of superheroes, and he faded away as they all did, and then his codename was borrowed for a corps of space cops who would induct many Earth-men over the years, and then he was written back into the (fictional) history of that (fictional) world and even given explicit canonical connection to the other, sci-fi Green Lanterns (it is a very long story) and by the time I was a tyke reading my first comics there was an established tradition of teaming up the sleek modern ring-slinger Hal Jordan and his more flamboyantly attired predecessor, Alan Scott, so I got the best of both worlds. I’m as much a fan of Alan as pretty much any other part of the whole Green Lantern mythos; I own a t-shirt based on Alan’s red-yellow-and-green togs, and I have two different action figures of him in my dorkatorium Green Lantern shrine.

So the character has more history than any other Lantern, and part of that included marriage to his long-time love interest and part of it involved dalliances with at least one supervillainess which may or may not have resulted in illegitimate children. Asserting at this late date that Alan Scott is gay would seem to either blatantly contradict what was previously known, or possibly set up a dark exploration of a seriously conflicted closet-case, and either of those might be cause for concern about the integrity of the object of my fandom … except not really. Comics change and reinvent their history all the time, and always have. It’s a necessary evil, because superhero comics are set in an idealized world of perpetual “now” in which the very concept of a past has to be as elastic as possible. Some superheroes started out as Nazi hunters or Commie smashers, but to chronicle the adventures of those characters today as anything other than octogenarians means that they were born long after those were going concerns. Origins get altered, sometimes tweaked in subtle ways, sometimes rewritten outright by divine (editorial) fiat.

And DC Comics, the publishers of Green Lantern, recently chucked all of their invented history out the window and asked anyone picking up their comics from here on out to assume nothing about the past except what was revealed in flashback as of last August. Same basic concepts, same essential elements of the characters that made them work as inspirational and/or fascinating totems of power fantasy, but restarted from square one. And the farther and farther one gets from those essential elements in defining each character, the more things were open for reinterpretation. Alan Scott had a previously established sexual orientation because he was portrayed as a human being, but did the nature of that orientation, whether he was into chicks or dudes, reside anywhere near the crux of what made the original Green Lantern the hero that he was? Not so much.

Basically every entertainment we have in modern society could stand to be more diverse, to speak to more people and more accurately reflect our human experience in the world. We need more women, more non-white ethnicities, more LGBTs, more non-Western political and religious outlooks, on every tv channel and in every movie studio and across the pages of every novel and comic book. We get a little better about it all the time, occasional setbacks notwithstanding. Superhero comics are not exempt from this just because they were created by a bunch of white urban American males seven decades ago, and my favorite comic book characters are not exempt just because I’ve spent a lifetime knowing them a certain way.

And someday (no doubt someday soon) I will explain all the intricacies of the multi-generational Green Lanterns to my little guy, and see how far I can go answering his endless questions armed with the insane amounts of trivia I’ve memorized over the years. And if it comes up, I’ll tell him how Kyle is the serial monogamist, and Hal is the womanizer, and Alan is in a long-term same-sex relationship. And it will not be a big deal. Because slowly but surely, it is becoming acceptable for well-adjusted adults to not be freaked out by gay people, and I look forward tremendously to becoming less and less surprised at how pervasive that mainstream acceptance becomes.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

A tale tall but thin (The Wind Through the Keyhole)

2012, as I have repeatedly reminded myself, is the Year of the Series Re-Read, consisting of three phases: First, The Kingkiller Chronicles by Patrick Rothfuss, which was the easiest to tackle because only two books of the planned trilogy have been published, and if forced to choose I would probably have to say that they are the best written of all the books encompassed in the reach of the Re-Read project. Second, The Dark Tower cycle by Stephen King, which I am in the middle of right now (and which is going to inform the bulk of this post, so I will come back to it momentarily). And third, A Song of Ice and Fire by George R.R. Martin, which I put off until last because I wanted to return to the source material after watching the entire HBO adaptation of the first book (I didn’t know how long this would take, especially because it entailed coordinating the viewing schedule with my wife, but we raced through it pretty swiftly all in all) and also because I wanted the end of my re-read of the fourth book to coincide with the paperback release of the fifth (and to date most current) volume of the series.

So far, so good, although I’ve hit a bit of a lull with Dark Tower. Re-reading Rothfuss was motivated by the fact that my wife is working her way through the second book, and my buddy Clutch had read both more recently than I had, and I wanted to be able to talk about the finer plot points and whatnot with both of them armed with a steadier grasp of the material. Re-reading Martin, as mentioned, was prompted mainly by a desire to catch up on the series before finally getting around to the most recent continuation thereof (after which I’ll once again be twiddling my thumbs waiting a couple of years for volume six, me and five million other fanboys and fangirls). Re-reading King fell closer to the Martin side of things, as King announced he would be publishing a new middle chapter of the saga, which struck me as a good opportunity to give the whole series another go from start to finish (since, unlike the other two, it really is complete), see how my understanding of the beginning changed knowing how it all ends, and slot in the untold tale in its proper place in the chronology since, at the very least, I’d be bound by my own obsessive King-fandom to pick up and devour that tome, anyway.

Funny enough thing about The Wind Through the Keyhole, though, it’s not a tome at all. It’s pretty slight, especially compared to the latter installments of the Dark Tower, both in terms of sheer page count and in terms of its thematic content. The trickiest thing about it is the nested structure, a story within a story within a story; the gunslinger Roland and his apprentices Eddie, Susannah and Jake have to take shelter to survive a preternaturally devastating storm, and while huddled around the fireplace for the night, Roland recounts one of his youthful adventures, hunting for a killer terrorizing a mining town. During that extended flashback, Roland meets a young boy, the sole survivor of one of the killer’s rampages, and tells the lad a fairy tale that Roland’s mother had often told him throughout his childhood. The fairy tale is about a boy who loses his father, as Roland’s young charge has, and who faced terrible monsters, as the lad must in order to help Roland find the killer. Coincidentally, the fairy tale also involves one of the starkblast storms the adult Roland and his apprentices are concurrently hiding from, as he tells them the entire fairy tale as a component of telling his own story. To hear the whole Scheherazadian outline like this might strain disbelief, but at this point I’ve gotten used to Stephen King’s version of an idealized fantasy world, where even a bleakly taciturn knight errant based on Clint Eastwood’s Man with No Name can be capable of spinning great, flourishing novellas when the plot dictates it.

But the fact remains that for all the scary monsters and wicked stepfathers and whatnot, the fairy tale is a fairy tale with a reasonably happy ending. It’s interesting to see what the folklore in King’s invented Mid-World culture looks like, but it isn’t intensely gripping. And Roland’s autobiographical framing device for the fairy tale feels a little lacking, as well. The Wind Through the Keyhole takes place in the saga immediately after Wizard and Glass, which is also predominantly a tale of Roland’s youth as told by the gunslinger to his apprentices, but a much more fundamental turning point in Roland’s life and his destiny. With Wizard and Glass having so recently been in my hands, The Wind Through the Keyhole couldn’t help but suffer in comparison. Wizard and Glass also advanced the Dark Tower quest incrementally, whereas The Wind Through the Keyhole feels like an afterthought that makes virtually no contribution to the overall saga. There’s a reason why King was able to complete the cycle without it.

So, it took the wind out of my sails ever so slightly, enough for me to read a couple of other books and watch some non-cowboy movies, as I try to pump myself up for the final three books. I’m no longer doing homework preparing to take up a brand new volume in the series, obviously, as from here on out I’m just re-reading Dark Tower books until I get to the end. But I’m sure I will, if only to return to the progressively apocalyptic grandeur of the climax after a pleasant but ultimately non-essential sidetrip. Then maybe when I’ve finished all seven-and-a-half books, I’ll write one more post tying up the whole experience. Probably!