Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Happy Harried Halloween! (The Shining/Paranormal Activity)

So, yeah, I’ve already copped to the fact that this year’s pop culture Spooktoberfest got off to a belated start, and thanks to the aptly-named Frankenstorm it’s limping across the finish line. Under more ideal circumstances this past weekend might have been uneventful, leaving time for me to finally watch my new blu-ray of The Cabin in the Woods (and not incidentally introduce my wife to its charms). And over the course of Monday and Tuesday’s commutes I could have finished reading The Night Eternal and also watched the next Netflix horror flick on my programming schedule, Candyman. But the weekend was given over to storm-proofing and stocking up (and rightly so) and there have been no train rides at all this week, so here I am all out of sorts.

But! I’m never one to let something as arbitrary as the calendar deter me and/or my completist tendencies. So prepare for Spookvemberfest! Sometime in the early part of next month I will weigh in with an evaluation of Guillermo del Toro’s Strain trilogy in a Series: Completed post, and I will also get down some thoughts on both Candyman and, eventually, Cloverfield (which was written by Drew Goddard, who co-wrote Cabin in the Woods with Joss Whedon, so that may make for a handy segue into revisiting that film, as well). Now, though, before we bid Spooktoberfest farewell, I offer up the following double-feature of reviews. Spoilers!!!

This week, what with Halloween and all, the 1001 Movies Blog Club is turning its attentions to The Shining. I have a somewhat complicated relationship with that movie. There are really two very different stories which loom large on the American pop culture landscape which go under the same title. One is The Shining, a novel by Stephen King. The other is The Shining, a film by Stanley Kubrick. In theory, the film is an adaptation of the novel, and they do feature characters with the same names and the distinctive setting of the Overlook Hotel, and in both instances the shining referred to in the title is another word for little Danny Torrance’s psychic powers. But Kubrick’s version takes so many liberties with King’s source material that it really becomes its own narrative entity (not least because the respective endings of the book and movie are so very different).

By the time I got around to watching The Shining in high school, I was already a couple of years into my Stephen King obsession, and I took great offense at how unfaithful Kubrick was in capturing the story on celluloid. The movie version just struck me as misguided, and that impression was only underscored by various interviews with King that I read, in which he very much distanced himself from the film because, obviously, the story up on the screen was not the story he had written. The novel really presents Jack Torrance as a sympathetic character, a regular guy with a few (serious) flaws who is utterly corrupted by the disembodied, malevolent evil of the Overlook. The movie presents Jack Torrance as Jack Nicholson, fresh off One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and more or less makes the haunted hotel a mechanism giving him permission to be as deeply, terrifyingly crazy as he was all along. That’s a huge departure, and a hugely off-putting one to a purist, particularly one as zealous as only a teenage superfan can be.

Eventually, I came around on The Shining as a movie. I stopped seeing it as a personal affront to Stephen King and took it on its own merits as a different beast, and of course there’s no denying how amazing it is. Whether or not it’s telegraphed from the first frames, Nicholson unhinged is awesome to watch, and the entire movie is so visually sumptuous and stylish, and the hotel’s weirdness is disturbing in all the right ways. King’s The Shining is a tragedy, but Kubrick’s The Shining is a fever-pitch nightmare.

(Of course, another side effect of how soured I was on The Shining can still be seen in how little of Kubrick’s work I sought out after that bad introduction. Not to recapitulate my Scorsese post from the other week, but I’ve also never seen 2001: A Space Odyssey or Spartacus or Lolita or A Clockwork Orange. I KNOW.)

So I do respect and enjoy the audacity of the indelible imagery in Kubrick’s The Shining, and I’m reasonably sure that’s everyone’s major takeaway from the movie. Jack Nicholson leering through a shattered doorframe; Danny Lloyd riding his Big Wheel down the gaudily carpeted hallways; Shelly Duvall wide-eyed and gape-mouthed at the axe head biting into the shot, those are compositions from which you can take a still frame, put them up with virtually no context, and people will say, “Oh, right. The Shining.” And probably (and properly) feel a bit creeped out as well.

Compare that to Paranormal Activity, which is also on the list of 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die, and which I just saw this past Friday. (Yes, I watched it on the VRE. I figured it was mostly tension-driven and unlikely to offend someone’s delicate sensibilities in their peripheral vision.) Paranormal Activity has almost no visual style whatsoever, by deliberate design, since it’s part of the “fictional found footage” trend in horror movies. Every sequence is either from a hand-held perspective or static mounted on a tripod. And half the movie is in green-blue low light nightvision.

That said? It is freaking brilliant.

The found footage aesthetic can be a lazy filmmaker’s crutch, putting a veneer of “this could have really happened” over every flaw from an unimaginative story to a woeful lack of budget. Or, it can actually enhance the story being told and make it much more affecting, and that’s where Paranormal Activity succeeds. One of the criticisms sometimes levied against Kubrick’s The Shining is that it’s a very cold movie. I do not dispute that at all. In some ways that’s entirely apt, given the snowed-in-during-a-blizzard setting (and plot resolution), but it also makes the scares offered by the film necessarily more unsettling and alienating. On the other hand, much of Paranormal Activity looks like a home movie, and Micah and Katie feel more like genuine people than actors, which makes the dread all the more visceral as their physical and mental well-being is continuously threatened.

What’s really amazing is how every scene looks like found footage but, if you stop and think about it, is clearly the product of a lot of thoughtful consideration. The living room light fixture swinging violently on its chain is scarier when captured by a tiny spotlight as Micah carries the camera on his shoulder through the otherwise pitch black house. And Katie getting dragged out of the master bedroom by an invisible force, chased after by Micah, leaves the tripod-mounted camera alone in the bedroom for a silent eternity, as all manner of horrors are supplied by the viewer’s imagination because absolutely nothing is happening on-screen. Before the movie’s climax, Katie’s demonic possession is really only indicated by her getting up in the middle of the night, standing next to the bed, and staring at Micah for hours. This is shown in its entirety, but sped up, with the timestamp counter in the corner of the screen accelerating and Katie swaying in slightly jerky fast forward. It’s such an obvious yet genius use of the premise, that this couple set up a camera to record themselves sleeping, and totally unnerving.

And then, that climax, quick but brutal, holy hell. (Pun slightly intended.) It’s not often that I see a movie on dvd and immediately wish I could have caught it in a theater full of people during its first run, but Paranormal Activity is up near the top of that list. I can only imagine the screams on opening night when Micah’s body came flying at the camera. It must have been exhilarating. I almost screamed, and I was watching on a teeny-tiny screen on a crowded train in broad damn daylight.

There are some books I read or shows I sit down to watch which I enjoy at the time and then forget about almost immediately, and there are ones where the enjoyment stays with me for a while, and Paranormal Activity is of the latter kind, which is fantastic. Except … it has three sequels and counting, and I am a completist by nature, even though I know sequels can never possibly be as good as originals! Will I seek out parts 2 through 4 (or 5 or whatever they end up reaching before flaming out) or will I leave my geeked-out memories of the one that started it all unsullied? I think we all know the answer to that one. Keep reading for my inevitable disappointment in diminishing returns in due time.

The Unbattening

Apologies if anyone thought the lack of post yesterday meant things had gone poorly for me in terms of storm effects. Not so, but yesterday managed to get away from me nevertheless.

So the plan was for all four (or nine, depending on where you draw your species-specific lines) members of my household to sleep in the same room on Monday night. My wife’s big fear was that a large bough, or possibly an entire tree, might come crashing through the roof or a window upstairs, hence we would decamp to a lower floor of the domicile. I considered potential flooding of the basement to be a more likely scenario, and that ruled out sleeping belowground. So we pulled out the sleeper sofa in the front living room, made that up as the parents’ bed, put sheets, blanket and pillow on the facing loveseat as a makeshift bed for the little guy, and set up the pack-n-play between the two for the little girl. This was all accomplished after eating an early dinner and getting a fire started in the woodburning stove in the den … but not before the power went out, which happened at about 7:00 p.m. Fortunately, at that exact moment, both of the kids were very much accounted for. The little girl had just finished her bath and her mother was getting her into pajamas, while the little guy (who had been in pajamas all day) was within arm’s reach for me, helping to make up the temporary sleeping arrangements. The little guy was slightly freaked out by the sudden descent into darkness, but got over it pretty quickly, especially when it became his job to run upstairs with the flashlight and come to mommy’s rescue as she finished getting his sister ready for bed.

And the little girl drifted off to sleep willingly enough, being rocked in total darkness, and transferred to the pack-n-play without complaint. The little guy joined my wife and I in the den, and got to watch a Bob the Builder dvd on the battery-powered portable player while the grown-ups watched the flickering flames. When his dvd was over, we got the little guy into his loveseat-bed and had just gone around turning lightswitches off in case the power was restored at 2 a.m., when sure enough the power came back, around 8:30 p.m. It would go in and out a few more times that evening and the following morning, but never for more than a couple of minutes.

So that was it, the extent of our inconvenience was that we didn’t get to see How I Met Your Mother (though I understand maybe nobody got to see it, if storm coverage on CBS pre-empted it?). Oh, and the wind knocked down our mailbox, which was already pretty wibbly-wobbly to begin with. Didn’t blow it away, just laid it over on the ground on its side. At one point late Monday afternoon a weather-tracking website had a gigantic red headline reading DEVASTATION IMMINENT but in the end it was more like meh-vastation, amirite? Not to belittle the suffering of many people who were without power longer, or remain so, or who have to contend with massive flooding, real wind damage, and so on. But I fully recognize that we got off extremely easy. Apparently there were no loose limbs or rotted trunks of trees left after the derecho back at the beginning of the summer. The basement/garage/entire house stayed in one piece and bone-dry.

Still, despite being yet another administrative leave day for me and my cohorts (and my wife and hers, too, for that matter), Tuesday had its own set of to-do’s which ended up occupying most of the day. Of course we had to break down the storm shelter we had set up in the living room, and remake the upstairs beds we had stripped. We had a family outing to the store (in part just to get the stir-crazy kids out of the house) which ate up a chunk of time. While the kids were napping I righted the mailbox (a stopgap at best, as the post is kind of rotting away and we just need a whole new one at some point) and my wife made phonecalls to reschedule various doctor appointments; this week I was supposed to see the dentist, the little girl was supposed to have her 18 month pediatric check-up and my wife was due for a twenty-week ultrasound, all of which ended up getting cancelled for inclement weather. When the little guy got up, I distracted him with the project of moving his train table (and the metric ton of trains and cars that go with it) from the main floor down to the basement, where their various choking hazard parts will be safely isolated away from Baby no. 3, in addition to freeing up the footprint in the living room for the pack-n-play’s use as combination changing table and bassinet. Next thing you know it’s dinner time, which we had planned beforehand as something we could cook on the grill: burgers and baked beans. The power, as I mentioned, was back and stable but we went ahead with the cookout in the drizzle anyway. And then after the kids were fed and bathed and tucked in for the night, the realization of needing to wake up at 5 a.m. for the first time in like five days sent me heading for bed not long after. Truly, a whirlwind of excitement.

Things are more-or-less back to normal, then, which means I can get back to blogging about my usual trivial obsessions and whatnot. To make up for yesterday I may very well hit those areas later this afternoon, time permitting. (Which it probably will; most everyone’s back to work today but it’s still pretty quiet around here.)

Monday, October 29, 2012

Raindrops keep fallin on my shed

As you may have heard, all the federal offices in the D.C. area are closed today because of Hurricane Sandy, so I am at home with my wife and the kids (who would all normally be home on a Monday anyway). We laid in some groceries, extra propane and ice yesterday, which means we're as prepared as we're gonna get for any power outage craziness. But so far, so uneventful. It's been raining steadily but not torrentially all day, and the wind has gusted now and then but nothing too ominous.

Still we're taking advantage of electricity while we have it. We've been doing loads of laundry more or less since we got up, we've already run the dishwasher and vacuumed extensively, and the little guy is currently watching a dvd on the tv in our room. And obviously I'm blogging, and my wife is checking updates on Facebook and Weather Underground periodically. It's entirely possible that we may just end up with a thoroughly drenched lawn and no other traumatic effects, which would be fine by me! But supposedly this will be a two-day storm, and it's only midway through day one. At this point I don't even know if I'll be required to report to work tomorrow or what.

So I will leave it at that and check in tomorrow. In the meantime, please enjoy this picture of Storm herself, everyone's favorite weather-controlling mutant!*

(* = lackluster onscreen performances by Halle Berry notwithstanding)

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Saturday Grab Bag Come Again?

On Wednesday of this week we had a fire drill at work and had to evacuate the building. Later in the afternoon, when everyone was back inside, I overheard my clueless, solipsistic co-worker (who really needs a catchier nickname if I'm going to keep telling stories about her on the blog) as she was talking to another colleague of ours, and I learned more than I wanted to know about the incredibly circumscribed limits of her thinking. Apparently, in her mind, there's some kind of valid comparison between the hardship of walking down eleven floors' worth of stairs during a fire drill and what people went through in the World Trade Center on 9/11. Because (she went on to say) the WTC was, what, 30 floors? I swear I am not making a word of this up.

(The Twin Towers were 110 stories each, in case you were wondering. Not everybody needs to have that bit of trivia memorized to function in society, I realize, but I would expect the average person to make an educated guess of "around a hundred" as opposed to thinking along the lines of "well more than fifty floors and it'd stretch into outer space!" Oy.)

+++

With baseball season over and my wife no longer working evenings, we've been sampling a lot more primetime TV. One night we somehow got sucked into watching Guys With Kids, which I had heard was resolutely terrible. But Erin Hayes (aka Lola from Children's Hospital) is on it as the ex-wife of one of the titular guys. Her role is fairly thankless, as she's the ex said guy is supposed to be better off without, because she's a frigid and pretentious shrew, har har har. The episode we caught was the Halloween one, and by the end of it everybody was in costume. Hayes is carrying her toddler son, who is in a cute Frankenstein's Monster get-up, while she looks like she's dressed for a Ren Faire in her velvet gown. One of the other characters asks Hayes what she's supposed to be (other than "fell asleep and got upholstered" which kind of made me chuckle) and I said to my wife, "Is she Mary Shelley?" and then of course Hayes says (in an aggrieved pretentious way) "Hello? I'm Mary Shelley!" This of course is supposed to be a punchline, of the "Look at the clueless nerd!" variety but my immediate reaction was, as parent-child costume combos go, Mary Shelley and the Monster is fricking awesome. Not an endorsement of the show, mind you, which is in fact pretty much as terrible as I had heard. But I'll give it up for the English major geek-out moment.

+++

Just a quick addendum to my Thursday post about the developing interests and attitudes of my offspring: the little guy has for a while now owned a book put out by National Geographic called the Little Kids First Big Book of Why, which has a vast array of micro-chapters answering common (or at least interesting) questions that kids might have, broken up by scientific field like physics (how far away are the stars?) and biology (why can't dogs talk?) and anatomy/health (why do I have to sleep every night?) The little guy recently re-discovered this book and is now utterly fascinated by it. That's a cool thing in and of itself, but even better was the other night when he left the book on the couch and our back-up dog wound up sprawled across it while napping. The little guy came upon that scene and grabbed his book, yelling at the dog, "Hey! I'm using that TO LEARN!" Right on, little proto-scholar of mine. Right on.

Friday, October 26, 2012

The Decoration Conundrum

Just last night my wife and I were trying to explain to the little guy that Halloween is, in fact, a specific day. As is often the case, the need for explanation arose because the little guy was insisting on things which were patently untrue, namely that Halloween was an entire month. So we were trying to set him straight not because we have a fierce desire to be acknowledged as correct when the facts or on our side (although, honestly, that is more or less true) but because we recognized the urgent need to manage expectations. The little guy is going to dress up and go trick-or-treating once, and that’s it, and he’d better be prepared to make the most of it. (He picked out a Captain America costume, though, and to be fair if he wants to wear it again and again after Halloween I obviously do not have a problem with that.)

Anyway, I think we succeeded in getting him to accept the reality of the calendar, but it did occur to me that Halloween is in some ways a season as much as it is a single date. I’ve already mentioned my current ongoing horror movie crawl, and various tv series have been airing their Halloween episodes already. It’s not quite Christmas season, in overall length or intensity, but it’s definitely A Thing.

You wouldn’t know that to look at or around our house, though. Well, okay, you might if you looked really hard, and saw the ghost-shaped votive holders on the kitchen counter, semi-obscured by a couple weeks’ worth of unsorted mail. We have some gourds in a bowl on the kitchen table, and a pumpkin the little guy picked on his big school field trip to a farm, but those are more symbols of the autumn harvest than Halloween specifically. There are no cardboard skeletons or black cats hanging on the walls of our house, no strings of LEDs ensconced in plastic candy corns, no rubber bats and rats. We don’t have fake cobwebs festooning our front stoop, or the back half of a broomstick-riding witch hilarious smashed into one of our exterior walls. We probably won’t even have a jack-o-lantern.

There’s a pretty simple reason for this, and it’s not even the boilerplate “we-have-two-small-children-who-wear-us-out-get-off-our-backs-GEEZ that I’m usually wont to deploy. It’s simply the avoidance of false advertising. Decorating your house or yard with fake tombstones and giant spiders and scarecrows and whatnot is essentially neighborhood code for “Candy will be handed out here on the 31st!” And for us that wouldn’t be true, because we’ll be over at my buddy Clutch’s house during trick-or-treat hours on Halloween, and won’t get back until after the doorbell-ringing window has pretty much closed. I’ve been living in my neighborhood for three years now and I have no idea if lots of trick-or-treaters come through or hardly any. I do know that none of the other houses on the cul-de-sac have done much Halloween decorating at all, so at least we’re not sticking out like the party poopers of the block.

But I love Halloween, and over-the-top house and yard displays could easily be part of my overall enjoyment of this time of year. Maybe someday they will be. And it makes perfect sense that they aren’t right now, but it’s just one of those things that makes me wish I could be in two places at once. Still, since I can’t and must choose, I’m looking forward to seeing my kids enjoy the night for as long as they can stand it.

(Incidentally, my daughter will be costumed as a chicken. Or, as I have been thinking of it, my kids will be heading out as Captain America and his sidechick Clucky. +5 geek points if that is the best pun you’ve heard all day.)

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Born to entertain

We are now pretty well into the little guy’s second year of Montessori, as well as finally underway with a transition of the little girl from the “older infant” room to the “toddler 1” room (the timing of said transition overdetermined by enrollment numbers and caregiver ratios at the daycare center; the little girl has been ready to mix it up with toddlers for quite a while) and both children continue to be adorable and delightful more often than not. When they’re not, they can be absolutely heinous in both their neediness and their willfulness (sometimes, paradoxical as it seems, each one simultaneously), but I have to admit that the good outweighs the bad.

And some things, I suppose, are beyond weighing, at least in terms of behavior modeling and positive/negative reinforcement and all that. Sometimes the little guy is sweet and helpful, and sometimes he is spectacularly uncooperative. To a lesser extent, sometimes the little girl is agreeable to whatever we’ve got going on, and sometimes she has her own ideas about how things are going to go down (involving lots of tears and screaming as you might expect from a one-and-a-half year old). But sometimes they do things that don’t register on the good-to-bad behavior continuum; sometimes things are just gosh-wow neat.

Recently the little guy has taken to singing to himself, much more than he ever did before. When I say “to himself” I mean for his own enjoyment, without any need to have me or his mother stop whatever we’re doing and pay attention and be his audience. I do not mean that he sings quietly, because, come on, he’s four. His favorite songs are “Bella Notte” from Lady and the Tramp (which, by his own admission, has lately supplanted Cars as his favorite movie of all time) and “Life’s a Happy Song” from The Muppets. The latter is kind of amazing since, as I related, he only saw The Muppets once, but I guess Bret McKenzie knows how to put together an earworm. Actually, I know he does, and I know the little guy’s favorite part of the song is the line that goes “I’ve got … everything that I NEEEEE-EEEED …” because you can really lean into that jump up the staff on “need” (and, boy, does he). It hasn’t gotten old yet.

I love music, so of course I love to see it taking root in my little ones’ hearts, but as we all know I love stories even more and the other day, the little guy told me his first ever original story. It was of course very simple and I’m pretty sure I can recreate it here verbatim: “Once there was a family of giraffes, a mommy, a daddy, a brother and a sister. Then, one day, they met a gorilla. And the gorilla said, ‘Will you be my friends?’ And the giraffes said, ‘Of course we will.’ And so they were friends. The end.” How fantastic is that? I know that, benevolent mercies of the universe willing, there will be many more firsts for me to enjoy in my son’s life, from the first time swings a bat and connects with a pitch to the first time he accelerates from a dead stop on an uphill in a manual transmission without stalling out, but I suspect that first story will always be at the topmost treasured position on the list.

I also suspect that his sister will be right behind him in the singing and storytelling sooner rather than later. She’s always been a little more attuned to music, and more likely to vocalize melodies (or approximations thereof in her preverbal way) so I am hard-pressed to predict where she’ll be when she’s four. Probably using a smartphone app to record and play her own voice back in order to three-part harmonize with herself. She’s getting more and more into books now, too, and figuring out things like characters in books having names of their own and so forth. She asked for a specific book the other night, about a chimp named Bobo, by saying “Bobo!” over and over again until I clued in. Did I mention she’s also differentiating sounds into more and more wordlike utterances?

I’m proud of her, of course, but I mention all this as much in relief as anything. For a while there, when my wife was working evenings and I had to get both kids to bed by myself, I worried sometimes that I was shortchanging my daughter by not reading to her enough. I rationalized that I didn’t have time to leisurely go through books with her on my lap while her brother was running rampant elsewhere awaiting his turn in the bathtub, and thus I would shuffle her off to her crib on the quick. It’s massively easier now that my wife is home for the bedtime rituals, but it’s also heartening to see the little girl basically demanding to be read to every night after she gets her pajamas on. Somehow, slack and distracted though I was in the early going, she got there anyway. Which gives me hope that baby number three won’t suffer terribly from mathematically necessary lack of constant individual attention. It might even be somewhat liberating. If I can always look on the bright side, and count it as a win if at any given moment even one kid’s behavior is close to the good end of the spectrum, or at least is amusing me, then the youngest will hardly ever have to rein it in at all.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Dies Irae, Baby (Red State)

As previously mentioned, I wanted to immerse myself in the scarier side of pop culture throughout the approach to All Hallow’s Eve, and that is exactly the kind of want I am well-positioned to convert to reality. Several horror flicks I had been meaning to see for a while were shuffled up to the top of my Netflix queue, the concluding volume of Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan’s Strain trilogy (recently ordered with birthday gift certificate funds) was set above everything else in my reading pile, and it looked like I was good to go for the concluding thirty-three percent or so of October.

So, of course, here we are after I finished watching Red State earlier this week, and rather than getting into the nitty-gritty of whether it was a good horror movie or not so good, I find myself needing to back up and reconsider what exactly a horror movie is supposed to be, anyway.

My understanding going in was that Red State was a horror film; indeed, if you Wikipedia it you can see it’s duly labeled as such right at the outset of the article. The disconnect, I think, lies in the fact that horror movies are notoriously (and arguably deliberately) formulaic, and Red State is anything but. It zigs and zags in wildly different directions at least three or four times, and normally that’s the hallmark of a film which, even if the quality is questionable, is at least interesting and thought-provoking. But it might actually be self-defeating when unexpected shifts like that come up against hardcore horror expectations. Maybe, maybe not.

One of the things I really like about horror flicks (and, to a certain extent, horror novels) is that they operate by the same rules on multiple levels. I’ve talked about the guiding principle of chaos before, at least in the plot-driven narrative sense. Horror movies are about a world turned upside down. There aren’t supposed to be dead rising from their graves to eat your flesh or suck your blood or drive you insane, and yet it’s happening. Even in a more “realistic” serial killer slasher movie, it’s still a story based on things happening which are not supposed to happen, in terms of the idea we all cling to that we are going to live peaceful lives and die in our sleep at a very ripe old age. So, a movie about vampire hunters really isn’t a horror movie, it’s an action movie, because the protagonists accept 9and expect) the existence of vampires. By the same token, a thriller about cops hunting a serial killer isn’t a horror movie because they knew the risks when they took the job and blah blah blah.

But at a more meta level, horror movies embrace chaos because they upend what we, the audience, expect from movies. We’re accustomed to triumphant heroes and happy endings, and horror movies give us neither. A horror movie doesn’t tear you up by exploiting your fear that werewolves really exist, it exploits your fear that the main character you’ve gotten attached to in act one is going to get eviscerated in act two. That fictional main character isn’t any more or less real than werewolves, really, but somehow that doesn’t matter.

So, as I mentioned, Red State is extremely chaotic as a piece of storytelling, and in that sense it exemplifies the way that horror movies should mess with the audience’s heads. And it does play with some of the classic tropes of horror, as well, at least in the early going. I can understand how the “horror movie” label wound up sticking. But at the very least, it’s an incomplete assessment.

I’ve made it this far in without mentioning that Red State is the latest movie written and directed by Kevin Smith. Kevin Smith is very much my homeboy and he seems like a guy who is more or less on my wavelength. I root for him to succeed and I want to be his biggest fan, but … man. Long, long readers of this here blog might remember back when I teased the possibility of starting a series of posts about falling out of love, in the sense of marked cooling of my fandom for various artists and creators (as opposed to falling out of romantic love with my wife, which I reiterate is as far from possible as I can imagine something being). I think it’s safe to say Kevin Smith would rate a falling-out-of-love examination, but it’s always been an on-and-off thing with him and me. I thought Clerks was amazing the first time I saw it, and then Mallrats was a huge letdown for being as glossy and vapid and fake as Clerks was grungy and resonant and real. Then Chasing Amy became one of my all-time favorite movies, and probably always will be. Dogma was … good, I guess? Kind of got lost in its own overblown controversy, but taken for what it is, it definitely has its moments. It should be better, just given the ridiculously stellar cast alone, but it’s watchable. Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back was a mulligan, as far as I’m concerned. Jersey Girl is better than its reputation, but that’s faint praise. And Clerks 2 was the point at which I knew a Kevin Smith movie debut was no longer an event that demanded rearranging my schedule. To this day I have never seen Zack and Miri Make a Porno.

But! Red State, based on what little I gleaned before watching it for myself, seemed like Kevin Smith was still willing to try new things, to challenge himself to grow as a filmmaker, and like I said, I root for the guy. As a fan of horror and a fan of Smith, I gave it a shot.

I’m not sorry I did, because it’s not a bad movie at all. John Goodman is exceptional as a weary veteran ATF agent, Keenan, and Michael Parks is hypnotic like a snake as an end-times obsessed pastor, Cooper. And I give the movie full credit for being totally unpredictable. But I do think it overreaches itself a bit. Spoilers follow! It starts out with most bog-standard of horror movie clich├ęs: horny teenagers. When three boys respond to an online personal ad from a lonely older lady offering to satisfy them all at once, they end up out in the trailer park late at night, with the punishment for their transgressions against conservative values waiting in the wings. The older lady drugs the boys and they wake up captives in a cult compound populated by Abin Cooper’s fundamentalist Christian brood. The Coopers have apparently been doing the Lord’s work by luring deviants, perverts and sodomites into their clutches and murdering them at the altar while Abin sermonizes. The boys would be the next victims except that on their way to the trap they sideswiped a parked car, and the local deputy is investigating the incident and tracks their car to the compound. While the Coopers dispatch the deputy, there’s just enough time for two of the boys to escape their bonds. One of the boys finds that the separatist Coopers have a massive arsenal of automatic weapons, because of course they do. So now we have ourselves a premise! The boys are trapped in the compound and outnumbered, but at least they can arm themselves and fight back.

But things swerve when one boy is immediately shot to death by one of the Coopers, although in his death throes he shoots and kills his murderer. Then with one boy still trussed up and one faking his death to buy time for another escape attempt, the ATF and the local sheriff show up, under the pretext that a lot of the weapons the Coopers have amassed have been illegally modified. The boy on the loose makes a break for it and is shot and killed by the trigger-happy sheriff, forcing the ATF’s hand. The feds announce their presence, the Coopers open fire on the feds, and a Waco-style bloodbath ensues.

Swerving yet again, the attention shifts to Cheyenne, Abin’s twenty-something granddaughter, seemingly the only one who realizes that the feds will kill everyone in the compound and possibly burn it to the ground, notwithstanding the fact that many of Abin’s grandchildren and great-grandchildren are kids if not babies. Cheyenne gets the closest thing to a character arc in the whole narrative as she goes from innocent believer to desperate rebel. She frees the last remaining would-be sacrificial victim (notice I haven’t bothered to give them names) and tries to convince him to help her, but he’s understandably pissed and unwilling to do Cheyenne any favors. She wins him over by killing her own mother when mom discovers them talking and attacks the boy. Cheyenne and the boy make it outside to the feds, and get gunned down in cold blood because killing everyone in the compound was in fact directive one of the orders from ATF headquarters.

So after that dead-end (ha ha) digression, the firefight across the compound continues until things swerve again with the sudden, supernatural sounding of a trumpet blast so loud it shakes the ground and knocks the ATF agents to their knees. Abin and his surviving brood start celebrating because the trumpet announces the imminent arrival of the Four Horsemen, Revelation, the Rapture and all that good stuff. They lay down their weapons and head outside so Abin can taunt the feds with his salvation and their damnation. But one more swerve takes us to a debriefing where Keenan is explaining his version of events to a couple of bureaucratic superiors. Turns out all the Coopers were subdued after Keenan lost his temper and headbutted Abin, and they are all going to be held indefinitely without trial as domestic terrorists. Also turns out the angelic trumpet blast was actually just an MP3 played through a re-purposed fire house siren by some kids who live on a collective pot-growing farm next to the Coopers; they thought it would be hilarious to mess with the fundies’ heads, and the fortuitous timing was entirely coincidental. Uh huh.

So it all kind of goes off the rails there at the end, as if Smith got tired of thinking of how to stage action and frame shots and violates rule number one: he tells rather than shows, with Keenan and his superiors trading long monologues (which are kind of Kevin Smith’s bread and butter) about the righteousness of the Patriot Act and the violent nature of Man and so on and so on. Before that, though, it’s a bizarre parade of bogeymen. Like I said, at the outset it’s the old reliable of teen sex, where if you dare to engage in it in horror-movie-land you will probably get murdered some kind of awful. Then the fundies become the real bogeymen, with their sanctimonious self-regard and unwavering belief in a bloodthirsty Old testament godhead. But then the government is the real bogeyman, with suits in offices giving good men direct orders to slaughter men, women and children, and the men in the field willingly following those orders, and the suits laughing callously about it all after the fact. The interchangeable teenage boys, tellingly, each die at the hands of a different faction: one killed by a Cooper, one by the dimwit local sheriff, and one by a hard-ass ATF agent. Even if the film hadn’t devolved into three guys sitting in a room giving voice to Smith’s personal rantings about intolerance and injustice, it’s pretty heavy-handed throughout: can’t trust religion, can’t trust the local authorities, can’t trust Uncle Sam (and certainly can’t trust teenage boys to make responsible life decisions).

Is the idea of a cruel universe where those can’t’s are immutable facts horrifying? Most def. But that doesn’t change the fact that Red State starts out superficially resembling a horror movie but winds up as a thudding screed. (Is it a coincidence that the pastor's family name is Cooper, as in the profession of barrel-makers? Because it seems like the whole purpose of the movie is to shoot fish in a barrel, I'm just sayin'.) Kevin Smith is really good at observing the little goofy trivial things that make up the life of the common (white, fairly geeky, probably raised Catholic) man, and really struggles when he tries to make deep philosophical statements. Maybe I should just go and watch Zack and Miri Make a Porno after all.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Dialed-up terror

Have I mentioned that I am looking forward to Halloween? I am very much looking forward to Halloween! I always look forward to Halloween, although over the years the various anticipations and enjoyments have inexorably shifted. When I was a kid, it was all about the day of, looking forward to dressing up in my costume and going trick-or-treating. When I got a little older, it was still about costumes but I enjoyed people-watching at parties (held near enough to but rarely exactly on the 31st) every bit as much as attention-seeking in my own get-up. And now I’m a little too old for either door-to-door begging for candy or raging keggers, but it’s fun to help my own kids dress up and have a low-key get-together with friends so that all of our kids can roam the cul-de-sacs together.

And I still revel in the spirit of the season, the decorations and the general celebration of weirdness that marks the build up to Halloween (which of course includes me personally binging on monster movies and horror novels, of which there will be much discussion in the coming days, as I cram a lot into the final ten days or so of October). But this year in particular there’s been a new tinge of frustration accompanying all of the preparations, and it’s kind of a drag.

My daughter falls asleep to music both at naptime (at home, at least) and bedtime, played on a clock radio in her room which turns itself off after 59 minutes. We’ve been employing that strategy with great success for months and months now. The hour of free music coming across the FM band comes with a certain number of commercials, of course, but that never really fazed me … until the pop station we normally have the clock radio tuned to started playing promos for America Horror Story: Asylum, which feature a fair amount of screaming and other aural disturbances. I get it, disturbing’s the point of the show and it’s not like they’re advertising during children’s programming or anything. It’s just a bit off-putting from my perspective, in the context of the nursery.

My wife and I were pretty rigid about making sure that the little guy didn’t watch any television at all before he was very close to two years old (after that, of course, the floodgates were flung wide open) and we’re trying to hold ourselves to the same standard with the little girl, but of course it gets harder with each iteration. She’s four to six months away from us being okay with her watching one half-hour toddler-oriented show per day, but we don’t shield her from the infernal appliance entirely. The biggest example there is live sports, where if she’s in the room or on the couch with us while a football game is being broadcast, that strikes us as relatively harmless. At least, it should, until there’s a timeout and the next thing on the screen is a commercial for Silent Hill: Retribution 3D, which …

Yowza.

For the millionth time: I know I got up to no good when I was a kid. I was allowed to watch pretty much anything on cable and read whatever made its way to my hands. I have over-indulged in video gaming and lost a fair amount of my hearing to heavy metal. And I’m not so hypocritical as to think these things were harmless for me but unacceptable for my kids. Within reason, I think I’ll be all right with them exploring the darker corners of entertainment (or history, you know, whatever floats their boats) without expecting them to hide it … as long as it’s their choice, and they come to it on their own terms, and they’re at least, say, seven years old. I mean for the beginner stuff, at least. No gratuitous slasher flicks for second-graders, I think that’s a reasonable line to draw, but if I find myself with a precocious seven-year-old curious about the 1931 Dracula film, I’d probably allow it (and assuming no co-parent veto) and see how it goes from there. But man, I just don’t need the nightmare fuel that comes out of nowhere to terrorize my pre-schoolers, interspersed with Katy Perry and Maroon 5 songs, or wedged between a kickoff return and a KFC Dip’ems campaign.

Not that I’m proposing any kind of solution to this dilemma. In fact, even with kids of my own it’s still one of my pet peeves when hyperconcerned parents comport themselves as if it should be the entirety of society’s utmost concern to bowdlerize the world and make sure nothing ever sullies the eyes and ears of their little darlings. Number one, you can’t shield your kids from everything, and number two even if you could (and even if you further decided such total shielding is optimal parenting), that would be your responsibility and no one else’s. It’s a big, weird, messy but wonderful world out there and there are some safe havens for innocence and there are some truly grotty areas to steer kids clear of, and there’s a lot in between as well. Pro-football may not be entirely wholesome and family friendly, and neither may pop music, and ultimately not only do I accept that is the world we live in, but I’m glad for it. And truth be told, I’m glad raising kids is not something that can be done on autopilot. If staying vigilant enough to ward off the weird stuff my kids aren’t quite ready to process on their own yet keeps me engaged and focused on them, I’m all for it.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Cup of calm

So my ability to do my work at my job has for the most part stabilized to acceptable pre-debacle levels. I have access to all of the specialized software I need, at least at the moment (one suite of tools is in 30-Day Trial mode at the moment, which means my office manager has about three more weeks to secure a permanent license for me before the programs lock me out; should be a relatively straightforward matter to straighten out but obviously around here I take nothing for granted) and overall the new computer seems to be running even smoother and faster than before, which is aces with me.

Best of all, I am no longer stuck with IE7 as my one and only browser here at work, as my new computer was returned to me with Firefox installed. Unasked for but very much appreciated! Of course I also still have IE7, which is all well and good because when I do web app development I need the ability to test and verify how things are working and how they look in the same browser that my colleagues are going to fire up to use said apps. But when I want to check my webmail or possibly sneak in some online banking or whatnot, it’s nice to be able to switch over to a browser that won’t trigger every “You seem to be running a laughably outmoded browser that will make this site appear like a low-end mid-90’s Intro to HTML assignment” alert on the web.

I didn’t pry for confirmation of the theory, but I got the distinct impression that my IT contact, who oversaw every step of progress getting me back up and running again, threw Firefox onto my machine as something of a peace offering to thank me for my patience during a week-plus of downtime. If I’m right, I think I end up coming out way ahead in the bargain. It was annoying to be computer-deprived for such a stretch, but remaining zen about it? Or, more to the point, remaining just zen enough to conduct myself politely about it? That’s more or less my default mode, anyway.

It’s not that I’m lobbying hard for my own enshrinement as a paragon of patience. I’ve just found that there is incredibly little to be gained by losing it all over someone in any context, regardless of whether or not it is their job to help you and whether or not they are doing so with all the expediency you desire. But that’s especially true in the Big Gray. I have no idea if any of my children will end up in the Big Gray (or something like it) but I tend to think there’s a good chance one or more of them will. And if there’s one lesson learned I can pass on to them without reservation, no matter what field of specialty they wind up in, it’s this: always, always, always be nice to the IT folks. And the HR folks, too, for that matter. When you don’t particularly need their help, smile when you see them, say hi, make smalltalk if the opportunity presents itself. When you do need their help, always convey that you believe they’re doing everything they can as fast as they can (even if you don’t particularly believe this) and that you appreciate it. In other words, just treat them like human beings. Because at some point you will reap the benefits of that, whether it’s because of some minor annoyance that they go out of their way to dispatch for you, or some major showstopper that they’re already predisposed to help you overcome. The people who keep your computer humming and your paychecks coming are people you want on your side, and when you have a problem it’s far better to be able to poke your head into their office and have them say “Hey, what’s up?” as opposed to “Who are you?”

And sometimes you get software that you suspect you’re technically not even supposed to have! It’s the little things that get us through, after all.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Off-season

Back in the late spring of this year I finally got a smart phone, and it did not take long for me to conclude that my favorite thing about it would be its web browser, and specifically that the browser featured tabs, which essentially means that certain web sites are loaded on my phone all the time. I can scroll back and forth between my back-up webmail (my main webmail is Gmail and since I have a Droid-powered phone that’s a built-in standalone app) and Amazon and the A.V. Club and various comic book sites and pop culture blogs with the speed and ease which my stimulation-craving and spoiled-rotten brain desires.

Until last night, one tab was permanently pointed at MLB.com, as well. But with the completion of the Yankees’ ALCS flame-out, I closed it. I’m sure it will be back in the array next spring, but I really have no further need for it this year. Sigh. All that remains to attend to is the obligatory post-mortem blog post. I’ve been putting off commenting much on baseball during the playoffs, but there’s no reason to put it off any longer.

I’m no sports pundit, so I don’t have any theories or pontifications about what happened or why. All I know is that the ALDS was like a microcosm of the entire regular season series between the Yankees and the Orioles, a back-and-forth battle that wasn’t over until it was over. The O’s played at the top of their game, the Yankees came through in the clutch and prevailed but it could have gone either way right down to the wire. We’ve basically got ourselves a worthy rivalry with Baltimore now and I look forward to its resumption next year. (Not without reservations, though, see below.)

And then immediately after advancing, the Yankees had to host the Tigers. I was out with a couple of my buddies and not really paying full attention to the game as New York fell behind, figuring you can’t win them all and the Yankees might need to catch their breath. Then the game got tied up and went into extra innings and I got deeply interested. (To their credit, my buddies aren’t really baseball fans by any stretch but they got interested on my behalf as well.) And then Jeter breaks his ankle and the Yanks lose in 12 … if you were looking for a bad omen, there it was.

With A-Rod struggling and Jeter out, I knew it would be a tough road ahead. And when the Yankees ended up losing both games at home and then had to go to Detroit for the next three (if needed), all I could do was hope for an amazing comeback story. Which quickly devolved into hoping for a loss with dignity where they at least put up a fight. But A-Rod benched and trade rumors swirling? Pitiful offensive output up and down the lineup? C.C. coughing up runs left and right in the do-or-die game 4? Like I said, I’m no expert, I didn’t see any of that coming and I don’t have any explanation for any of it.

Poor sad teddy bear.

I told my wife the other day that I honestly didn’t know which was worse: winning the ALDS, at the expense of her beloved Orioles (which robbed the experience of an enormous amount of its pleasure) or losing the ALCS in such thoroughly dispiriting fashion. I’m still trying to sort that one out.

I’m sure there are Red Sox fans aplenty who are rubbing their hands and can’t stop grinning at the Yankees humiliation, to which I can only say … fair enough. I dish it out, I gotta be able to take it. I was gloating about how everything fell apart in Boston not too long ago, and today I’m wondering if I’m going to be scraping for crumbs as soon as next season, consoling myself that the Yankees may be on the downswing and mired in third or fourth place, but at least the Red Sox are slightly worse. (I know, I know, that’s not even the worst-case scenario, there are other mathematical possibilities which could come about, but I’m unprepared to even contemplate them now. I’m trying to be magnanimous but I’m not made of stone here, people.)

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Timescales

The other night, the little guy was driving me absolutely out of my mind. I had asked him repeatedly to get undressed for his bath as I filled up the tub, and he refused. This is not exactly a shocking turn of events, but what makes it even remotely comment-worthy was that he was not deeply engrossed in playing with his Cars toys, nor was he miffed because he had just decided five minutes earlier he wanted to watch a two-hour movie and his parents were disallowing it due to the proximity to bedtime. That malarkey happens all the time. But on the night in question, instead of getting undressed he climbed into the chair in his room (which has line of sight into his bathroom, where I was waiting for him), flipped himself upside down in it onto his shoulders, started kicking and punching the air wildly, and yet calmly explained to me that the only way he would stop is if I came into his room and picked him up.

So that did not go over terribly well with me. There’s this fine line between indulging my son’s whimsy and feeling like a puppet dancing on his strings, and I was not in the mood for to jiggety-jig. So we battled back and forth, I got louder and angrier as he entrenched his bizarre and unreasonable position more and more, and finally I determined that he had exhausted all of his chances. So I went into his room, not to pick him up but to strip him and march him to the bathtub, wash him as fast as possible, get him out and dry and into pajamas and then into bed with no story (he lost that pretty early on in the struggle). As I’ve said before, these are not my proudest parenting moments, and I’d always like to think I can supply as much patience as any given situation demands, but it’s the times when the little guy’s actions seemingly make no sense whatsoever that I find my patience burns off the fastest.

And then, of course, in hindsight I look back and try to figure out if there was in fact any method to the little guy’s madness, any context that might have illuminated things any better. Like, just for instance, if maybe lately my wife and I have been expending vast amounts of time and energy riding the little guy about rules he’s not allowed to break, behaviors that he’s not allowed to engage in, expectations he’s supposed to live up to, conditions and consequences of chains of events, and various other do’s and don’t’s which doubtless seem as utterly arcane and arbitrary to a four-year-old as, also just for instance, contending that the only way to stop someone from upside-down chair flailing is to pick them up on command.

Yeah. Like that.

Let me back up for a bit and relate a few impressions from my step-sister’s wedding earlier this month. Both of our kids were really exceptionally good at the ceremony and the reception what little of the latter we were able to stay for, at least) and they were oohed and aahed over greatly by both our family and complete strangers who happened to be staying at the same hotel. At one point I was taking the little girl back to the room to get changed, and let her toddle through the lobby toward the elevators under her own power. A family got off the elevator and headed towards us: mother, father, and three kids between approximately ten and seventeen. The pair of us passed the five of them and the father nodded and smiled at me and said (as people are wont to do) “They grow up fast!” That much was echoed to me in various forms by my relatives a fair amount over the weekend, and I completely accept the truth of it.

On the other hand, my cousin and his two-and-a-half year old boy were also at the wedding, and luckily his son and mine still get on together well. Which did not preclude me from slipping into a constant stream of instructions for my little guy at one point as they were running around: watch out, say excuse me, not on that you might fall, not near that you could break it, slow down, &c. &c. &c. My cousin turned to me semi-deflatedly and said “It never ends, does it?” I guess he was hoping that his son would turn three and magically become more docile and manageable, and my four-year-old was thoroughly putting the lie to that.

So there it is, then: the childhoods of our children go by in the blink of an eye, except that they go by one patience-draining, sanity-sapping day at a time as well. Four years really isn’t much in the grand scheme of things, or even in my own so-far lifespan, and yet it feels (irrationally) like way too long for the little guy to still not understand that the parent-child power sharing arrangement is entirely one-sided and devoid of sharing. But here we are and he still doesn’t understand that (or at the very least is extremely unhappy about it) and it’s much more my job to get that across to him than his job to intuit it somehow.

There’s the double-whammy, too, of his little sister coming more and more into her own autonomy and thus needing more supervisory attentions diverted in her direction, plus the impending birth of our third child. I think both my wife and I feel, maybe not that the little guy should by all rights be acting more mature and helping us redistribute our parental workload, but that man that sure would be nice. And we’re only human, so sometimes that unrealistic wistfulness bleeds into interactions with the little guy and elevate certain tensions, which is a drag.

But don’t feel too bad for the little guy. We recently let him in on the fact that we are going to be getting a newer, bigger car soon. My wife primarily wanted to soften the blow of losing daddy’s car in the trade-in, since it’s a fair assumption that the little guy might be really attached to our existing rides. But he’s apparently fine with ditching my old ride and super-excited about the new wheels. My wife gave him a brochure from the dealership and he’s been absolutely fixated on poring over the glossy photos and specs and whatnot. So things are pretty sweet for the moment, all intergenerational headbutting notwithstanding.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Confessional style (The King of Comedy)

I’m going to go ahead and stake a claim on having one of the most backwards possible relationships with the works of Martin Scorsese. Or, at the very least, an improbably haphazard history with him. I guess at this point the relationship is all right: I consider him a gifted, rightly revered director, and that’s how it should be. But for the longest time I was more or less ignorant of who he was and how much of American cinema he was responsible for creating or influencing.

The first Scorsese film I ever saw, when I was in high school, was his remake of Cape Fear, which I thought was, y’know, OK. (If you listen closely, you can hear film studies professors all over facepalming right now.) Between then and hooking up with the 1001 Movies Blog Club, I only saw two other movies he directed: Goodfellas and The Departed; I was probably one of the last people on earth to finally get around to Goodfellas, but I was slightly quicker to pull the trigger on The Departed. Still, it’s entirely possible that I saw the PSA they used to run in Regal Cinemas movie theaters, the one where a mother is tucking her son in and letting him say goodnight to his father on the phone, and Scorsese barges into the bedroom and starts re-working the scene (the tag was “We don’t interrupt your phone calls, please don’t let your phone calls interrupt the movie”) before I really had a clear idea of who the old guy with the thick-framed glasses was supposed to be.

I’m still embarrassingly behind on the man’s body of work, however you slice it. Taxi Driver? Never seen it. Raging Bull? Nope. The Last Waltz? Nuh-uh (despite my wife being a superfan of The Band!). The Aviator? Negative (despite my Very Little Bro owning it!). Last Temptation of Christ, Casino, Shutter Island? No, no, no. What can I say? There are only so many hours in the day, days in the year, and squeezed between Legitimately Important Things (my job, my family) and Monumentally Trivial Amusements, Irritations and Distractions (most everything else), sometimes the quality art gets completely shut out. But that’s why I hitched on to the 1001 Movies Blog Club in the first place, right? To correct some of the oversights.

So thus far since embarking on the quest I’ve seen Gangs of New York and now The King of Comedy. And maybe it’s strange to go for one of the more obscure entries in Scorsese’s filmography ahead of, say, Raging Bull, all I can say is the assignments come up the way the assignments come up, and I roll with it.

And honestly, I’m glad The King of Comedy came up, because it’s really a pretty fascinating flick. I’m no fan of Jerry Lewis, but I found him really compelling, believable and sympathetic as the lightly fictionalized version of himself, Jerry Langford. And I am a big fan of Robert DeNiro, but he gets to play completely against type in a way that’s a hoot to watch as the delusional Rupert Pupkin.

Delusions make up a critical component of the movie, and the one that hooked my interest the most. The plot, such as it is, is motivated almost entirely by Rupert’s delusions (of being a gifted comic, of being a friend and confidante of Jerry’s, of being the romantic soulmate of an old schoolmate, &c.) and the movie itself weaves in and out of reality and fantasy. Sometimes the audience is able to see Rupert dealing with everyday life more or less the same way that a normal person would. Sometimes we see him interacting with other people via strategic deployment of willfully blindered obstinacy. Sometimes we see him retreating to his sanctuary (his mother’s basement) where a variety of homemade props allow him to play-act his daydreams, following established scripts that are clearly the result of obsessive repetition. And sometimes what is up on the screen is actually what exists only in Rupert’s mind, the alternate version of his life where he is the mega-successful entertainer to whom Jerry Langford turns when he needs a personal favor.

(There is apparently some disagreement as to the ending of the movie, and whether everything that happens after Rupert is arrested following the broadcast of his headlining act on the Jerry Langford Show is real or imaginary. There is no doubt in my mind that it is all imagined. I’ll concede that it’s a matter left to the viewer’s interpretation, but at the same time there’s really only one way to interpret it based on both the content of the ending itself and everything else in the movie building to that point.)

On one level, the extent to which Rupert is willing and able to lose himself in his fantasies, and the masterful way that DeNiro sells it the whole way, makes Rupert a hypnotic character, pathetic and sad and scary and hilarious all at once. And on another level, the techniques Scorsese uses in his scene transitions and juxtapositions to keep the audience off-balance for a while on the whole “is this really happening?” angle is particularly well-done. From Rupert as a slightly defective human being, to the intercutting between his internal and external worlds, to the heart of the plot involving Rupert kidnapping Jerry and demanding a spot on the show as ransom, everything about The King of Comedy is fairly warped. But of course I totally mean that in a good way.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Dark rites

So now that things are finally back to normal(ish) around the ol’ salt mines, not to mention the fact that we’ve completed the running gauntlet of birthdays extending from my son’s in September through mine, my Very Little Bro’s and my mom’s in early October, I am now more or less mentally freed up to concentrate on things that really matter. Like Halloween!

Specifically, what better time than the darkening-ever-darker days of late October to catch up on horror movies? I have a review for the 1001 Movies Blog Club lined up for tomorrow, and another one due in November, so in the meantime I figure on maxing out my Netflix membership by dipping into some less reputable cinema. All things in moderation and all that.

Of course there is a bit of a conundrum inherent in that plan, given that I do nearly all my movie-watching these days on the VRE, and there’s something slightly impolite about watching gory flicks even on a small portable player screen while sitting right next to a complete stranger. I’ll probably work around this by taking a couple of days to consume each movie, watching them only in the mornings when I can sit alone in a single-file upperdeck seat on the train, and switching off to something (arguably) less objectionable like Smallville in the evenings when it’s more crowded.

(Side question: what does it take for something to qualify as Halloween-evocative? If I were to make a themed music playlist for a Halloween party, beyond obvious lead-pipe locks such as “Werewolves of London” and “Running with the Devil”, how tangential could I get? “Candy Girl” by New Edition? What about, speaking of Smallville, “Superman” by R.E.M., since people dress up as Superman for Halloween year after year after year? Discuss.)

Anyway, a macabre movie festival-for-one is on tap. Which has me thinking about horror flicks in general and why they tend to have the core audience that they do. And something occurred to me which had never quite crystallized for me before (amazingly enough considering this is going to be the third time – after this and this – that I’ve ruminated deeply on the genre itself in just the past six months).

Here’s the thing, as the philosophers say: all of us ain’t nothin’ but mammals. Deep down inside we all still have a lot of inescapably embedded neurological hardwiring primarily concerned with surviving in the wild, both in the sense of staying a step ahead of death and also propagating the species. And despite how far removed we are from the primal concerns of defining ourselves as predators rather than prey, we still gravitate towards culturally-acceptable outlets for processing all of that. Especially when we’re in middle school and high school.

In my (about to be grossly oversimplified) experience, there was kind of bell curve distribution of archetypes for the kids in my class. (Actually, this shouldn’t be too much of a surprise considering how hugely significant gender roles are in adolescence, but let me state for the record I’m really just talking about the boys here.) Because I was lucky enough not to be stuck in a broken, failing school system, most of the other guys were decent enough students, and a fair number of them played some kind of sport or another, so that’s the middle of the curve: student-athletes. Dead-center would be the most popular kids, who were good at sports and aggressively mediocre at studying. Move away from the center to the left and you have worse and worse GPA’s; move to the right and the academic achievement goes up. You also have falling popularity in both directions, as well as declining sports participation. In other words, the continuum runs like this: burnouts, dumb jocks, C-average jocks, smart jocks, and nerds.

There’s no question that the jocks have it made in terms of satisfying their fundamental imperative to assert male dominance. That’s kind of what organized sports are all about. And the burnouts never really have to worry about anyone questioning their inherent virile toughness, either, since they tend to be the ones getting suspended for fighting and other related outbursts. Those four-fifths of the continuum are well acquainted with their inner primate. Nerds, not so much.

Some nerds, the pure nerds who are essentially defined by their intellectual nature to the exclusion of any social skills or extracurricular passions, basically concede the point and don’t even attempt anything like a shot at alpha maleness. But others, and here of course I’m getting at geeks like me, may very well feel and respond to the urge to do something that shows they might aspire to the minimal criteria for mating. Assuming, though, that a geek is a geek (through whatever chicken-v.-egg happenstance) because he’s a little off, i.e. not into sports like the other kids, or into his own pursuits no one else shares, or whathaveyou, then what possible play can he make? He might not be able to show that he’s fast and strong, but can he show that he’s tough or brave or any other traditionally male trait that’s supposed to be evolutionarily advantageous?

I would argue that if someone makes a movie that is specifically conceived and constructed in order to freak the audience out right in their amygdalae, and someone else can sit through said movie without looking away, such an act of consumption could be construed as a testament to the viewer’s mettle. It’s a stretch, I know. Sounds pretty silly to tease it apart and lay it all out like that, and I’m doubtful that very many pencil-necked fifteen year old boys who adore House of 1000 Corpses would cop to that being any kind of motivating factor at all. I’m certainly not insisting that it’s some kind of conscious calculation of cost-benefit analysis at any rate, not even for little old overthinking fifteen year old me back in the day. But I do think there was a subconscious element at play, if only in my personal case. I remember discovering that not only the roller-coaster ride of adrenaline during a horror movie was fun, but also that the feeling of accomplishment upon making it to the end of a horror movie was enjoyable, and something I prided myself on. Not by directly comparing myself to the quarterback of the football team in terms of our respective guts, but maybe distantly and indirectly. For that matter, I’m sure I knew I couldn’t legitimately hope to socially unseat the popular jocks just because of a high threshold for scary cinematic imagery, but within and among my circle of friends we all absolutely jockeyed for dominance.

I mentioned in my earlier post about horror movie sleepovers how falling asleep in the dark was easier knowing my three friends were in the room with me. That was really only a half-truth; it was and it wasn’t. Because watching an entire slasher flick was only the beginning of the ritual. Then we would spend a significant portion of the wee hours trying to spook each other, trying to prove each other’s weakness with a well-timed startle that would make someone scream like a girl and show how wound up the movie had really gotten them. That’s the part that really cements the whole theory in my mind, because there is not a shred of doubt in me what we were on about during those late night marathons of messing with each other. Why are (younger male) geeks drawn to horror movies? Because we need some way to prove we are in fact male, and we don’t have a lot of other options at the time.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Day 6 and counting

I had just started writing a post about how there had been zero progress on my workstation (lack thereof) situation when the friendly neighborhood IT guy swung by the cubicle I had decamped to. He did not, sadly, have my PC all fixed up and better than new under his arm; the resuscitation attempts are, apparently, still ongoing. But he wanted to try to make the wait for me as bearable as possible, which I certainly appreciated. Specifically he wanted, at a minimum, to transition me back to my own cubicle (doubtless prompted by the fact that all of my voicemails to him ended with “… so I’m still using my boss’s laptop at another cube, if you call me back I won’t be here but you can leave me a message …”). And I was fully onboard with that kind of stopgap approach, if only because today my boss decided it was the kind of day where he needed to play some music in his adjacent cubicle in order to carry on. And my boss’s taste in music apparently runs in the adult contempo/Kenny G/Michael Bolton vein. (I know that sounds like a bit of recycled Office Space humor but I could not be more for reals here, people.)

Anyway, the IT guy had a few potential ideas:

- Set me up with a loaner laptop in my cube. This seems like the easiest no-brainer approach but there must be some logistical nightmare of temporary assignment paperwork which kept it from being the very first thing he attempted.

- Steal one of the computers sitting unused in my office. Technically these are awaiting some new hires and should be configured for them when they start working here, but since they’re not here now … Even so, snagging them would require at least running it past the office manager, and of course she’s not in today. So that was out.

- Move my boss’s laptop over to my cube and plug it into my network drop, configure it for that location, etc. No-go because the laptop is actually locked to the desk there, and even though I’ve been using it every day for close to a week, my boss was (understandably, from my perspective) reluctant to unlock it and let it venture off to my desk because once you let a piece of GFE out of your direct control you never know when IT is going to abscond with it, never to be seen again (witness: the very situation I am in now).

- Try to get my old, pre-upgrade box back online and working again. And this, option 4, was ultimately what we went with. I say “we” but I just stood back and watched while the IT guy ran the machine through its paces, which was incredibly time-consuming because the computer had been disconnected from the network for a month and had to catch itself up on all the updates it had missed and whatnot. But eventually, I was able to log in.

So here I am – back at my desk, back with my slow old piece-of-garbage. But, this weird turn of events also means that I once again have my full complement of development software available, and I’m pathetically relieved over that. Yet at the same time it’s kind of a step backwards since I’m saddled with near-obsolete low levels of memory and processing power. But it beats the laptop, which was starting to have its own buggy issues (the one I mentioned in Friday’s post? Happened again later in the day Friday and first thing this morning.) and even though it really has nothing to do with anything productivity-wise I do feel better sitting in my own turf again. Meanwhile there haven’t been any breakthroughs to report on getting my new machine repaired (or just getting a new-new machine and moving on from there) but I haven’t heard about any setbacks, either (not that I can possibly imagine what that might entail), so … it’s not exactly progress, but it’s not exactly regress, either. What’s the gress-word for moving sideways or going in circles/not going anywhere? Aggress? That seems apt considering it’s the source of my steadily rising levels of general aggression.

BOOM CUT TO

OK, in the time it took me to compose all of the above (and get a modicum of actual work done) they actually finished repairing my new computer, and brought it back and set it up again. And at this point it actually has about 67% of the specialized software I need, too. So things are actually looking up, and at this rate I might be doing my thing full-time in another two or three weeks or so. Will wonders never cease.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Wicked Pork Robot (The Story of English in 100 Words)

I'm pretty sure I heard about David Crystal's "The Story of English in 100 Words" via NPR and added it to my wish list right away. I received a copy for my birthday and read it over a couple of days. As someone who is a fan of trivia and etymology, and not put off in the least by deliberately shallow, poppish surveys of deep dense fields of study, I'm pretty much the target audience for this book. It's an aptly titled volume, too, since it doesn't claim to be more than it is. It's not "The Complete History of the English Language in 100 Words", obviously. "The Story of English" refers not just to the ever-evolving living language, but also English culture and general English-ness, tripping through the centuries from the earliest discovered inscribed artifacts to modern online slang. It's interesting, it's light and entertaining reading and it has a few great nuggets of knowledge which were new to me.

Which is not to say that it's entirely without flaws. Crystal has certain linguistic areas he's particularly fond of and tends to return to again and again (like Cockney rhyming slang), and other areas which are total blind spots. He makes a fair effort to include Americanisms alongside the Queen's English, but certain things I would take for granted pretty much elude him, such as urban African-American influences. For example, he takes some time to ponder the word "what" going all the way back to its origin as a rhetorical device poet-minstrels would use as an attention-getter, but he fails to bring the story full-circle in relation to every guest rap Lil John has ever dropped. Major missed opportunity.

Another whiff: Crystal traces the history of the word matrix. He leads by conceding, non-judgmentally, that if you ask anyone born after 1980 what they think of when they hear the word, they will say it's the futuristic computer network that imprisons humanity in the Keanu Reeves movie. (An assertion I do not deny in the slightest, of course.) Then he explains how the word was actually coined in an English translation of the Bible, to mean womb. Then it evolved to mean origin-place, then embedding location, then interconnected structure, and so on, eventually being co-opted by computer geeks and ripe for the picking for the Wachowskis. Again, though, here's an amazing opportunity to show things coming full-circle, because considering the way that the robots use human beings as biofuels in The Matrix, keeping them floating in dependent balls of goo, you can draw a straight line back to "womb" again. You can, but Crystal doesn't, and from that I can only conclude that he has heard there's this movie called The matrix and he knows the gist of it but he's never actually watched the film. Because when you see the scene where Neo wakes up ...

Goooooooood morning!

... it tends to stay with you.

And finally, mandatory deduction of points for including the word "chillax" which is terrible beyond reckoning.

But, these are all relatively minor quibbles, and I still think the book more than justifies its own existence. I'm happy to add it to my library. At the very least, I learned several words (bone-house! fopdoodle! mipela!) which I will probably be dropping irritatingly into conversation for years to come.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Total Loss

Not a great week on the work front, kiddies. As you may have guessed from my blog-silence.

The not-great-ness has derived purely from a technological perspective, mind you. Never fear, I’m not personally in trouble or having collegial conflicts, nor is my gig in danger of going away (any more than usual, at least). But it’s been a bit of a boondoggle as far as my computer-oriented productivity has been concerned.

Ironically, I was all set and psyched to write a little riff on Monday about how it was Columbus Day and I was allowed to come to work dressed down and my contracting boss was going to take us out to lunch and let us go home early. And all of that did in fact end up being true and coming to pass, plus as per my boss’s usual working-holiday tradition there were some presentations of service awards and I got my little (non-personalized, times are tough) Lucite paperweight for five years at the company. All pleasant enough.

But when I first arrived at work Monday morning, after having been out on Friday (we made it to the wedding on time and the kids comported themselves like little angels and the ceremony was lovely and we were all four abed by 9 p.m.; a more detailed recounting of the ups and downs of the trip is perhaps a story for another day) I found that my computer would not boot up. It cycled through the process a bit, stopped, shut down, restarted, repeated, ad infinitum. I tried restarting in Safe Mode, Networked Safe Mode, Last Known Good Configuration, &c. &c. but couldn’t get the box to a happy place. So I called the IT Help desk … which was of course short-staffed due to it being a federal holiday. But someone did answer and start a ticket for me, and I spent the couple of hours before and after our long lunch at Chili’s just sitting at my desk reading a book on graphic design, which is at least glancingly related to my occasional work duties developing new web applications.

I went home Monday night and came back Tuesday morning and the situation had not improved. I let the office manager know where things stood and when an IT person came through our office on an unrelated assignment, she collared him and pointed him my way. It’s always interesting dealing with IT people, I find. I readily concede that they know more about our DoD networks, and networks and hardware in general, than I do. But I do know a little about computers (just enough to make trouble) so when the IT guy asked me if I had tried shutting down and rebooting my computer I thought that was a fairly condescending question, but I understood that he has to start somewhere and it’s not the first time someone has assumed I wouldn’t have thought of that on my own. I brought the guy up to speed on what I had tried to no avail, and he tried it himself just to verify, and then he disconnected my machine and took it away in order to re-image it (wipe the memory clean and start over installing the operating system and programs, basically). The laughable aspect, which I admit ends up being a good thing, is that as you may recall the computer was almost brand new. So I didn’t have extensive amounts of data that would be lost in the re-imaging, barely any at all in fact; I had offloaded all my personal files to my assigned network folder in order to facilitate the recent upgrade, and they are all still there. Because YOU NEVER KNOW.

So that was toward the end of the day Tuesday, and the plan was for the re-imaging (which can take hours) to happen overnight and maybe I’d be back in business in the morning. Meanwhile, my contracting boss had informed me that I could sit in the cubicle next to his, which is where his GFE laptop is docked, and I could log on to the laptop so as not to be completely off the grid any longer than necessary. The laptop didn’t have all the software I normally need to do my whole job, but then again, neither did my new computer right before it died, so it wasn’t that much of a step backwards. And it was just for one afternoon of catching up … right?

On Wednesday morning when I got in (a little late, as I accidentally overslept, which my wife was gracious enough to characterize as a bit more purposeful since there was no rush to get back to a desk without a computer) sure enough my computer had not yet returned from the IT department. I called the tech, got his voicemail, left a message, and sat down to work on the laptop. Occasionally I would cruise past my desk to see if the voicemail icon was flashing. No word by midday so I called the tech again, and actually got him. He said the re-imaging hadn’t worked, because my computer had a defective hard drive (uh-oh) and he had requisitioned a new hard drive, installed it, and found that one didn’t want to boot up either (UH-OH) so he needed to do some more diagnostics to see if I had the improbable bad luck of getting two bad hard drives in a row or if there was actually some problem with the motherboard or other crucial components aside from the hard drive. I stood by until the end of the day, called back again for a status update, got vm again, left a message, and headed home.

No word from IT on Thursday morning, but I spoke to the office manager again and she was not happy about the lack of progress and promised to get some follow-through. I resigned myself to another day on the laptop, which was all right for a couple of hours until (suddenly and without warning!) my access card just stopped working. First I couldn’t send an e-mail, so I closed and re-opened Outlook, which solved nothing so I rebooted my computer, and then I couldn’t log in to the computer at all. So I went down to the building lobby where the access card issuance office is and sat in the waiting room for about an hour and twenty minutes until someone was able to see me. He checked my access card and immediately declared it was working perfectly, told me to go back upstairs, reboot my computer (ahem) and try it again. I did, and everything was back to normal. At my best guess, IT might have been working on my computer and done something to map my access certificates to the repaired machine which interfered with my access on the laptop – but I had no way of verifying that since I hadn’t heard boo from IT, which held true for the rest of the day.

Seriously, what are they DOING to it down there?

Which brings us to today. No computer, no messages, no change. (No surprise.) But still more thrills and chills! There was an automatic software update which required a restart of the laptop (which of course kicked in after I had been logged on for about half an hour, just enough time to have about seven different things open in varying stages of completion) and I obediently closed out of all my applications and allowed the restart to happen … after which the laptop hung during boot up. So I shut it down manually and restarted again, and it booted up and I logged in … after which the laptop froze. So I shut down again and restarted AGAIN all with a growing sense of terror that maybe the laptop was going to wind up broken and in need of repair as well. Which would not be my fault (I’m 97% sure!) but would no doubt be construed as somehow my fault, if not by the IT folks then at least by my far-less-computer-savvy co-workers. Plus I would then have no ability to do any work at all, having burnt out my fallback position. But fortunately the third time was the charm and (obviously, as I type this) the laptop seems to be holding it together … for now.

There’s also an irritating cherry on top of this super-annoying sundae of a workweek, which involves the travails of my commute. No VRE service on Columbus Day, so I had to drive/Metro in and back (not too bad in the morning but irksomely slow as always in the evening). Tuesday was reasonably normal. On Wednesday, as I said, I went in later in the morning, stayed a little later and then tried to return-trip home, only to find the VRE in a state of total disarray due to a “trespasser fatality” (which is a weirdly awful euphemism for “suicide”, I am forced to assume) which meant the train I was attempting to catch was late, and then revealed itself as it finally reached the platform in Crystal City as totally overcrowded with passengers because the trains on either side of it in the schedule had been cancelled outright. And the train was only going about halfway along the route anyway. I had already called my wife asking if she could meet me at the foreshortened terminal point of the line, and had to call her back and say never mind, can you meet me instead at the final Orange Line stop because I can’t even get on the VRE but at least Metro is giving free rides to accommodate overflow. Of course my wife had no recourse but to bring both kids with her, and we thought maybe we could have dinner in Vienna and wait out the westbound rush hour traffic on 66. Dinner went exceptionally well for involving a four-year-old and eighteen-month-old and a sit-down restaurant, but our stated goal proved over-optimistic: there was still a ton of traffic between us and home when we set out. Thursday the trains were running on time again so the faulty cog in the machine proved to be me, as I was in charge of dropping off the kids, got all the way to the daycare, and realized I had forgotten the little guy’s stuff at home, which was kind of crucial as it included his permission slip and bag lunch for his first ever school fieldtrip. So back home the three of us went, I dashed in for the backpack/lunch, back to daycare and onward to the train, and I got to work with seconds to spare before core hours. By the time I worked my eight and got home again it was basically bathtime for the kids.

Today looks to be more normal, but three out of five off-kilter commutes is already a bit much. Fingers crossed it won’t be four out of five by the time I get home tonight! At any rate, my resignation to the computer situation at work is now deeply settled, so even if things continue to drag out I should at least attempt a bit more regular updating next week.

Friday, October 5, 2012

Out of Office

The family and I are roadtripping today, or more accurately roadtrip-continuing. We drove from VA to NJ last night, and today we head on to CT in order to attend my step-sister's wedding this evening.

Just didn't want to leave anyone hanging. I had some notions for a longish random Friday post, but that'll have to wait until next week I reckon. See you Monday, assuming that the southward journey back home again goes reasonably smoothly.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

One couch, two audiences (The Muppets)

The weekend before last, I took the kids to the library. The little girl isn’t quite at the point of picking out books to borrow, but the children’s section of our library has quite a few puzzles and foam blocks and whatnot that she enjoyed playing with while her brother perused the shelves for some new stories to incorporate into the bedtime rotation. We also (finally) discovered the children’s DVD section, from which the little guy was permitted to select a couple of discs. He picked out a Cookie Monster compilation and the recent (2011) big-screen franchise revivification effort The Muppets.

It wasn’t until we got home and were relating our library excursion to my wife that it occurred to me The Muppets is actually a PG-rated movie, and the little guy had so far only ever been allowed to watch G-rated Disney and Sesame Street and Doctor Seuss stuff. Ok, technically, Sesame Street is well-populated with Muppets, but I knew in my heart of hearts that beyond Big Bird’s barrio things might skew a little less all-ages appropriate. The library only allows DVD’s to be checked out for one week, so I had seven days to screen The Muppets myself, determine if I thought the little guy should be exposed to it, and if so, let him watch it before it was due back.

Long story short, it all worked out. I watched the movie mid-week, didn’t find anything overly objectionable in it, and my wife and I told the little guy that if he had a good week he could earn the special treat of staying up late Friday to watch the movie (and, not incidentally, wait for mommy to get home from her very last night working past bedtime ever). And that’s more or less how it went down.

Initially, my main concern about The Muppets was that it might be too scary for the little guy. It was not that long ago that he was completely freaked out by the climactic chase scene in the new Lorax movie, and I know that Muppet flicks tend to be more conflict-driven than the usual PBS fare the little guy consumes, plus they’re all the more potentially threatening for being live-action. (You have to admit, Snake Walker the frog-killer-for-hire from The Muppet Movie could be quite the nightmare fuel for a pre-schooler.) As it turns out, The Muppets does technically have an antagonist, but firmly in the evil-businessman mold, setting up a classic “let’s put on a show to save the old studio from being torn down” narrative. Which is pretty handleable, right?

But as I watched The Muppets my concern shifted to something I hadn’t considered before: slapstick violence. There are a couple of comic setpieces in the movie which involve some over-the-top punching, and the little guy is just at that age where we are struggling mightily to teach him just how wrong it is to hit other people (or push his sister, or pull the dog’s tail, &c.) I don’t want to send the kid mixed messages, but I also don’t want to deprive him of a Fun Film Friday headlined by something he picked out himself by disqualifying a 90-minute children’s movie that’s all about friendship and believing in yourself and happens to have a grand total of 60 seconds of cartoonish fisticuffs. My wife and I talked about it and ultimately agreed that as long as there was a parental disclaimer at the outset about how the Muppets do crazy things that we don’t do in real life, we could proceed.

So the little guy and I watched the movie together and he wasn’t scared by the villains and he didn’t fly into a miniature berserker rage inspired by the moments of violent physical comedy, but once again it’s the things I don’t even think of beforehand that manage to sneak up on me. What failed to register with me the first time around was this: (SPOILER) the movie pulls a fake-out ending. After all their efforts, Kermit and the gang fail to raise enough money to save the studio. The bad guys win! But Kermit gives a rousing speech about how even though they failed the effort brought them all together again and reminded them that they’re a great big family-by-choice full of love and everything that Really Matters. And while the amount of comfort a person might derive from that is bound to be variable, when the disappointed yet brave-faced Muppets start to head home, they discover screaming throngs of fans waiting for them, all signs indicating that the Muppet comeback was actually a success and even if they technically lost the old studio they’ll soon be able to buy an even better one. (Then on top of all that, in a throwaway gag during the closing credits, Gonzo accidentally hits the main villain with a bowling ball and the head trauma leads directly to the villain deciding to return the studio to the Muppets, hooray.)

All well and good for an emotionally resonant and non-straightforward resolution, but oh MAN. The little guy was so crushed during the brief “bad guys triumphant” stretch there at the end. I forget that he lacks the lifelong exposure to predominantly happy endings which allows the rest of us to hang in there when things seem bleak for our heroes, secure in the knowledge that some dues ex machina or other is doubtless right around the corner. I had to provide the reassurance for him, but it wasn’t easy. Thankfully the movie didn’t draw it out too long, or I think the little guy might have just run out of the room in tears.

I did not see that sucker-punch for him coming, but I probably should have. Here’s the true takeaway from both my viewings of The Muppets: it is a children’s movie that was unequivocally made for and aimed at me and my generation. It’s a relentless nostalgia-trip, and there are call-outs galore to the older Muppet films, mainly The Muppet Movie. The thesis of the movie is that the answer to the question “Are the Muppets still relevant?” is “Yes, kids and adults of all ages still love them!” – but really the more correct way of answering that is “Kids today can find some appeal in them but the real appeal is for Gen Xers recalling their own childhoods”. And it’s patently (and arguably brilliantly) obvious who the movie is for right from the get-go.

The Muppets opens with its main character, Walter, filling us in on his childhood, which was mostly awesome although there were times when he felt he didn’t quite belong, until he discovered the Muppet Show on tv and became their biggest fan. The voiceover-driven montage of Walter growing up looks like home movie footage, and is underscored by Paul Simon’s “Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard”. In other words, it references a kind of technological medium that post-millennials haven’t seen and rides atop music that post-millennials haven’t heard. But those elements don’t properly belong to Gen X, either; if anything, they belong to the Boomers – our parents. So grainy home movies and Paul Simon don’t even bring to mind the things I was into when I was old enough to be my own arbitrator of taste, they remind me of my early childhood, when my parents were in charge. That is a sneaky, semi-genius headtrip right there, but again, it’s going to be utterly lost on a small child today.

OK, and then to really hammer the point home, the movie’s points of reference advance in time with the plot but only up to a point. Specifically, to the point where we meet Kermit’s new valet:

80’s ROBOT. Complete with “jokes” about Tab and New Coke and dial-up modems. Well-played, sirs. Please just direct me to where I might purchase some 80’s Robot merchandise and I will take it from there.