Thursday, February 28, 2013

Still ticking

If I’ve done my math right, I believe that as of today my wife is slightly more pregnant than she was the day that she underwent labor induction for the birth of the little guy. It remains to be seen if the current pregnancy will continue much longer, if it will end up surpassing the total amount of time my wife was pregnant with the little girl (which would take another week and a half), and if in fact it will go all the way to the calculated due date (or … beyond!) not to mention whether it will all end with induced labor or just … labor.

We’re rooting for “just labor”, for what it’s worth. Both of our munchkins turned out just fine despite being induced, but at the same time they had issues we had to work through which may not necessarily have been as bad, or might have been eliminate doutright, if they had been born full-term and intervention-free. It would be nice to go that route this time around, and it is an option we have as of this moment. My wife’s blood pressure is nice and low compared to third trimester’s past, no doubt due to the combination of her body getting the hang of it and her less demanding work schedule these days. (Staying home with one or both kids can be just as exhausting, physically mentally and emotionally, but it’s less inherently stressful and aggravating, which I contend makes all the difference.) She hasn’t had another episode of contractions as prolonged as this past Sunday pre-dawn, but she has still been having them here and there. Her body is gearing up for labor, and we have the luxury of waiting until her body is absolutely ready of its own accord, so … the clock ticks and the calendar flips and we shall see.

Of course what’s going to happen is what’s going to happen, and there could be a sudden late-game development which makes induction the more safe and rational choice. Or my wife could go a week past her due date with no troubling developments and then go into labor, or she could go into labor tonight or tomorrow. It seems like Murphy’s Law is the overdeterminer once again; if we race through our pre-baby to-do list and want the little bundle-o-fun to come NOW, we’ll be kept on pins and needles until the back half of March. If we cut ourselves some slack to get things done because we have plenty of time, my wife’s water will break in the middle of the night tonight. I suppose the good news is that neither of those two possibilities would really be all that terrible.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Luxurious Backdrop (Metropolis)

ROARING 20’S MONTH comes to a close today (though, again, don’t rule out the possibility of some leftovers popping up in March, especially during the weeks I’m on leave from work) with yet another classic silent film, Fritz Lang’s Metropolis.

Towards the end of last year I went over the list of 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die and made some prioritization notes of my own. I try to follow what the Blog Club is watching, of course, but I wander off on my own quite a bit as well. So I highlighted several films which I consider to be foundational classics of my self-identified geek sub-culture and which, for various reasons, I had never seen. To my chagrin, there were many of these, from Forbidden Planet to Night of the Living Dead to Mad Max to The Killer. The bright side is that I now have a ready go-to list for the times when I want to continue chipping away at the must-see classics but am more in the mood for genre trash like Shaft than heavy drama like Schindler’s List.

Metropolis was on the list, too, since it is one of the earliest and most influential science-fiction films ever. And since it was released in 1927 I realized that February’s theme gave me a multiple-birds-with-one-stone justification for finally checking it out. And I have to admit, it is a pretty phenomenal piece of art. I was so taken with it that if I ever hear of a local showing, particularly if it’s on a big screen with a live orchestra doing the soundtrack, I’d probably go to great lengths to arrange another viewing of all two hours and twenty-eight minutes of it.

The bits and pieces I had absorbed about Metropolis over the years had left me with the impression that it was only barely a sci-fi flick, since it is nominally set in the future (which looks a lot like the present relative to when the film was made, and therefore the past relative to my lifetime) and also includes one robot character. So I was pleasantly surprised to discover just how speculative the movie truly is, with its gilded utopia powered by the brutal oppression of a sub-class of workers. The sets and costumes might be a strange (yet undeniably cool) blend of art deco and gothic styles, but the society envisioned by Lang is something out of a dark future. Granted, critics who say that this dark futuristic society seems to be deficient in its logical underpinnings have a point. The elite live in ease and luxury while the proles operate gigantic machines at great personal risk … but it’s never quite explained what the machines do, whether they are power generators or food replicators or manufacturing engines or what. What is made clear is that the machines (somehow) enable the decadent lifestyles of the elite presumably because of their advanced capabilities, yet the machines require human operators to constantly monitor and recalibrate them, with the machines overloading and wreaking cataclysmic havoc if they are not run properly. And the workers are forced to run the machines in grueling ten-hour shifts with no relief. This seems unsustainable by design, which of course is exactly what it is, since the climax of the movie involves the workers rebelling and allowing the primary machine under the city to self-destruct in order to bring down the high and mighty.

But I would argue that anyone looking for precise and airtight logic in Metropolis is kind of missing the point. The movie to me felt more like a ballet, with the music and the images conveying a simple almost impressionistic (or, technically, expressionistic) story, a broad allegory rather than a refined thinkpiece. Although, all due credit to Lang, the story of the wealthy abusing and dehumanizing the poor and a rich boy falling in love with a working class girl might be basic but the telling of it in Metropolis is anything but. I was impressed by the simple, quiet power of The Passion of Joan of Arc and charmed by the intimate limitations of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, but Metropolis is neither simple nor limited. The sets are huge, the special effects are striking, and Lang makes full use of various techniques which only film can achieve, rapid editing and multiple exposures and so on to create dream sequences, agitated states of mind, and so on. It’s ambitious and it works, and I know I sound somewhat condescending as I keep grading things on a curve when I look at these movies made almost a century ago, but I am duly impressed with the final result.

Even the silent-era acting in Metropolis is admirable. It’s over the top, of course, but it’s not entirely without nuance. Freder and Maria, the young lovers, manage to be intense in a vibrant way while the mad scientist Rotwang makes a pretty good case that Rudolf Klein-Rogge invented scenery chewing with wild abandon for cinema. Freder’s father and his cadaverous enforcer The Thin man, meanwhile, are much more restrained, though each in his own way, and other minor characters have their own personalities as well. The fact that numerous characters could be so distinctly drawn without properly speaking is another achievement. And, I should confess that I am a sucker for movies and tv shows in which a single actor plays multiple roles, especially an evil twin or impersonating doppelganger. Metropolis gives us Brigitte Helm as the beatific Maria, and also as the amoral hell-raising robot whom Rotwang disguises with Maria’s face. Fittingly for Rotwang’s creation, the robot version of Maria is all exaggerated caricature of a wanton woman, but the contrast with the portrayal of the human Maria is deeply entertaining.

All of that plus the flooding of an underground ghetto, a nightclub riot, a burning at the stake (of a robot) and a fistfight on top of a cathedral ending with the bad guy falling to his death! The flood scenes struck me as clear antecedents of James Cameron’s Titanic, while the cathedral fight undeniably has echoes in Tim Burton’s first Batman movie. I’m pretty sure Metropolis is canonically required viewing for any aspiring modern filmmaker. It probably should be required viewing for any filmgoer, too.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Better start calling this “TV Tuesday”

A couple hours after yesterday’s post went up I got word that my mom’s health crisis was shading towards getting better rather than getting worse, which was of course a huge relief. She’s still in the hospital and in rough shape, but improving and hopefully will continue to do so. There’s really not much else to say on the subject at the moment, and that will probably continue to be the case for a while, at least until there’s a major milestone like my mom getting released and heading home, but that’s probably several days off at least.

The upshot is that this is one of the (many, many) ways in which art cannot imitate life, using the loosest theoretical definition of “art” possible and applying it to “this blog”. This is a clearinghouse for my thoughts, but it’s also a place where I try not to repeat myself too often. A minor happenstance in my semi-charmed life or a trivial bit of pop culture ephemera prompts me to expound on it for a little while, and then it’s out of my system and on to the next thing. That formula does not apply to weightier events of any great significance, which all have the tendency to dominate the forefront of my mind for days or weeks at a time or more, without ever changing much. I circle around and around in their emotional-gravitational orbit just because that’s the nature of these things, not because I need that much time to process through a litany of thoughts but because I simply can’t stop. I don’t claim to be alone in this, either, which is all the more reason why I don’t find the phenomenon particularly interesting nor expect anyone else to. My mother is life-threateningly ill, and this makes me anxious and sad and angry and regretful and any number of things despite her getting good care for it and good hope for recovery being very much appropriate. That was true on Sunday when I got the news, and yesterday, and today, and will be tomorrow and the day after that. And I will run out of words for different ways of putting that before it stops being the case, whether or not I mention it day after day after day round these parts.

So, I might as well talk about Community, I guess?

The long-delayed fourth season of my Favorite Show Ever got underway at the beginning of this month and the world has now had the opportunity to check out three separate installments of the show as it now exists without its founding showrunner. My personal reaction has been mostly positive. Between Harmon’s departure and the runaround the season premier was given, I lowered my expectations accordingly. Now that I’ve finally been able to tune in on Thursdays on the regular, I’ve been happy to find that the current version of Community bears more than a passing resemblance to what came before. It is different, no mistake, but again, I was expecting that, and it hasn’t deviated wildly beyond what I braced myself for. Unfortunately, it’s not merely “different, but still just as great” but rather “different, and still good, but not quite as great.” None of the three episodes we’ve seen so far have hit the highs of the all-time classic episodes of the past.

The critical reaction to the show’s return has been mixed, as well, and a little more negative (probably because I’m more positively biased, right into apologist, than your average professional tv reviewer) but one particular writer offered an insight I’ve taken to heart: Community is really starting over again from a behind-the-scenes perspective, even as it continues previous storylines with the same actors playing the same characters. The very first three episodes of Community’s first season weren’t that mind-blowing either, but it built its rhythms as it went along and blossomed into brilliance. There’s no guarantee the fourth season will do that, but it’s too early now to discount the possibility. It’s rough right now, but it might not always be. (Then again, NBC could burn off the last ten episodes it has on hand and then forbid the speaking of the show’s name ever again, and we’ll never know what might have been. Unless someone writes a book about it.)

So I’m not despairing about Community, and I still consider myself a fan. I haven’t commented on the show since February 7th because I haven’t had much to say, and honestly even though I’m a big ol’ drum-bangin’ booster for the show and would love to raise awareness and influence ratings, if someone who had never watched Community before checked out the last three episodes on my say-so, I’d feel like I had done everyone a disservice. But in addition to all of those qualified quasi-non-statements, I did have a little nit to pick with the most recent episode, “Conventions of Space and Time.”

The episode had some good callback jokes, and it had Matt Lucas, and it had Danny Pudi doing a dead-on Joel McHale impression which pretty much slayed me, and it positively wallowed in the sci-fi show-within-the-show Inspector Spacetime by sending all of the characters to InSpectiCon, which means it should have been an unabashed geek-out. But on that last count it really failed to click for me, and paled in comparison to what I still think was one of the finest half-hours of the entire series, “Advanced Dungeons & Dragons”.

The thing about the “AD&D” episode was that it was clearly written by people who understand the roleplaying game, and who love it, but also recognize everything about the game (and the subculture of gamers) that is thoroughly ridiculous. And the script brought it all home in the details. Everything was blended into the story in such a way that, to someone who knew little or nothing about Dungeons & Dragons, the incomprehensible game jargon gave things a genuine texture without becoming distracting, while at the same time those bits of minutiae were extra joke-sprinkles for anyone with a foot in that alternate world (like me). A the same time, the script never stooped to suggesting that D&D was a stupid game or that people who played it a lot were irredeemable losers. Fat Neil comes off pretty freaking well in that episode (as does Volunteer Dungeon Master Abed) as he goes from victimized misfit to admirable hero in the kind of subversion that Community is best at pulling off.

I don’t doubt that the people who wrote “Conventions of Space and Time” understand Doctor Who (the basis for the Inspector Spacetime pastiche) and have been to some fan conventions in their day. I am not exactly a big Whovian but I’ve been to plenty of cons myself, and the InSpectiCon just felt totally broad and generic to me. There was very little in that episode that had to happen at a fan convention and could happen nowhere else in the way that certain elements of “AD&D” could only have happened within that specific gaming context. And while “Conventions of Space and Time” never stooped so low as to do any mugging and nudging along the lines of “Check out these freaks who would go to a fan convention for a sci-fi show!” there wasn’t anything particularly subversive about it, either. (Giving Thoraxis a fan club member who is a hot, intelligent adult woman doesn’t even really count. Although Thoraxis is a fantastic dumb villain name on many levels.) It was just a backdrop, and not a particularly memorable one.

Maybe the problem was too many layers of remove. Community hits its highest highs when it riffs on tv history and pop culture in general with a zealot’s specificity, whether it’s for the turn-based combat rules of Dungeons & Dragons or Abed quoting anything and everything from Star Wars to My Dinner With Andre. Inspector Spacetime is an homage to a real pop culture juggernaut, but (fan wikis notwithstanding) there’s no real Inspector Spacetime show to pull specific nuggets of reference from. When Troy and Abed make passing, gibberish reference to the show it works, but attempting to capture a whole convention center filled with that gibberish felt a little hollow.

But again, I hate to kick a show when it’s down, and I’m still much more vested in seeing Community succeed (against staggering odds) than in bailing on it prematurely. I can only hope that at some point late in Community Season 6 there will be a totally gonzo time travel episode that involves Troy and Abed going back to the InSpectiCon from three years prior, at which point I will be thoroughly grateful that I watched the earlier episode and can appreciate all the references.

Monday, February 25, 2013


Or lack thereof? If we are talking about the mental variety, it is in short supply, even as the chaos is in higher concentration that usual. One feeds directly into the other, of course.

I am in the office today, and ostensibly getting stuff done (as opposed to last Friday, when I was out of the office for several hours because of an all-hands meeting at the Pentagon to hear from leadership about the anticipated effects of sequestration) but it is no easy task. This post will perforce be brief, and almost certainly not the most riveting thing I’ve ever written, but if the blog goes dark for a fair length of time in the next few days, at least it won’t be without notice.

So Saturday night my wife was awakened at about 2 a.m. by contractions. She assumed that they were of the random, passing variety (to which she has been prone throughout the latter days of this pregnancy) and, bless her too-kind heart, her first inclination was to let me remain asleep while they ran their brief course. However, when they continued with regularity for more than half an hour, she (rightly) woke me up and I proceeded to time them while she attempted as much as possible to relax. They continued unabated and picked up a little speed, eight minutes apart, then seven, six, five, four … 3:30 a.m. came and went, then 4:30 … at a certain point I lost the ability to hold the intervals between the contractions in my head and started entering the time in a spreadsheet on my smartphone, which I did for at least an hour or so, until right around 5 a.m. the contractions became more spaced out and then suddenly stopped, and we fell back asleep for another hour or so before the kids started waking up. Obviously, you may deduce from my aforementioned presence at the office that the baby did not come this past weekend. He just gave us a few interestingly fraught hours of trying to determine, given that water had not broken and the contractions were coming steadily but not with any particular intensity, how much longer we should wait before calling the doctor for further instructions and/or sending out the mayday signal to friends and family who could reasonably sit with the little guy and little girl while my wife and I headed to the hospital. It seemed respectful to everyone else in the world who would be asleep at 3:00 or 4:00 a.m. to wait as long as possible before sounding the freak-out alarm, and ultimately we were glad we did since said alarm was finally proven false. But it certainly made the baby’s nearness feel altogether more real and also more, um … near.

Which in turn helped give us the motivation to go out and get stuff done on Sunday while we still could, some stuff specific to being fully baby-ready and some stuff which we’d simply prefer not to wait another month or two to square away. So we had a productive morning outing, and right around midday when we got home I got a phone call from my brother because our mom was in the hospital. It’s a serious situation which still has the potential to get better or get worse, but either way it is unfolding 2000 miles away.

So, yeah, that was my weekend (notwithstanding a nice visit to meet the newborn of some good friends of ours on Saturday morning and then some housework and grocery shopping Saturday night, before things started getting noteworthy in the wee hours of Sunday morning). Thanks to the foreshadowing contractions, I’m devoting a fair amount of energy at the office today toward making sure that everything I’m working on is cleaned up enough to hand off to someone else, if necessary, because it feels like an any-minute-now situation. At the same time my mother’s health crisis has me only halfway paying attention to those work assignments while I keep one eye on my phone, waiting for my brother to call with an update. Not my sharpest day! I will update further as the various storms clear, as I’m choosing to believe that they will.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Wait, when did this happen?

It is a week after the fact, but I am determined to record for cyber-posterity the official household stance my wife and I have adopted regarding the celebration of Valentine’s Day at the daycare center, to wit: Are you kidding me?

Obviously I can’t speak for anyone else’s circumstances beyond my own (although the next time I get together with my friends who have children in elementary school, I hope remember to compare notes with them) but at the childcare facility my family makes use of, Valentine’s Day is a disproportionately big deal. The children in each room are expected to exchange valentine cards with one another, and to that end the parents are provided with photocopied lists of the names of all the children in the room(s) where their child(ren) spend each day. Up to this point, I say fair enough. Certainly I exchanged valentine cards with my classmates growing up, and I believe even back then there was a strong suggestion (official or unofficial, all the same to me as a kid) that the children not exclude anyone, but write out valentine cards for everyone else in the room. (Of course I do also remember picking my cards with utmost care; if there were six different templates in a 24-pack, they were easily arranged in a hierarchy of subtexts from “I really like you” to “I am obligated by rules of decorum to address this to you” and I made sure each recipient was matched to the message accordingly.) The point being I don’t have a problem with the valentines being mandatory.

Or at least, I wouldn’t have a problem with as regards my son and the Montessori Room, as he is almost four-and-a-half and is starting to navigate the shallowest waters of social relationships. But there was also a mandatory exchange of cards in my daughter’s Toddler Room, where the median age is about 21 months or so. For the little guy, valentines cards are another opportunity for him to practice reading simple words and writing his own name and his friends’ names. The little girl is of course oblivious to all such things, so asking the parents of pre-verbal tykes to do all the work of addressing/signing a rosterful of cards, the significance of which will be lost and wasted on the children anyway, seems … odd? (Or infuriating, if you are my wife, and since she is the one who did the hand-cramping work of a/s-ing the cards, she has every right to her fury, I say.)

But above and beyond that, the whole valentines card process has actually become much more elaborate than when I was in the playground set. Apparently it is not enough to exchange little rectangles of perforated cardboard imprinted with jedis or fairies, and it has become customary to attach a little treat to the valentine as well. Sometimes this is a single lollipop or bag of mini-M&Ms, but sometimes it is an entire goodie bag with candy, stickers, and other sundries. One of the girls in the little guy’s class (whom the little guy is actually very fond of) gave out bags that contained one packet of mini Oreos and one heart-shaped silly straw, ostensibly for use in a glass of milk to accompany the cookies. Which I am not so much of an ogre as to deny the inherent cuteness of, I just … I don’t know. It just seems a bit much.

And of course, while I’m predisposed to find this all a tad excessive, I think that I would still find the higher-end lapses of parental judgment aggravating even if I were fully on-board with the whole gift-exchange escalation. Lapses of judgment such as selecting peanut butter filled chocolates as the affixed treat, despite some fairly clear and reasonable rules at the daycare center about food allergies and not bringing trigger ingredients (LIKE PEANUT BUTTER) into the classrooms. Or lapses such as putting little novelty erasers in the goodie bags in the Toddler Room. (Did I mention that the toddlers’ parents do the whole goodie bag thing, too? Because they do, apparently.) Happy Valentine’s Day, here’s a choking hazard for your child who’s still very likely still in the put-everything-small-in-his-or-her-mouth stage.

Needless to say, although we bought gender-coded (Avengers and My Little Pony) valentines cards for our children to hand out, we did not take things to the next level, as the kids say. Hopefully we did not ruin our progeny’s lives as a result of low-balling the significance of the valentine rituals amongst their respective cohorts. It should be our last daycare-assisted Valentine’s for a while, anyway, with the little guy headed to elementary school as of this fall and the little girl at home with her mom and her baby brother on the day of the week V-Day 2014 happens to arrive. But the kindergarten thing does emphasize that I do need to know if this whole valentines-plus-treats thing is a weird local phenomenon or becoming (or already has become) more widespread and mainstream. I take no particular pride in the thought of being the kind of parent who would have his children’s pleas to fit in falling on deaf ears, with no more counterargument than “That’s not how we did it in my day, and that sounds dumb.” I can go along to get along, moreso if it’s for my kids’ sake. I’d also like to think I’d take a stand on issues that actually merited it, but I doubt that applies to buying a little extra candy every February 14th.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Chekhov’s Tennis Racket (Strangers on a Train)

It is 1001 Movies Blog Club time, which necessitates a break from Roaring 20’s Month. It occurred to me that although I’ve been limiting my Netflix DVD consumption almost exclusively to titles from 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die lately, and I’ve been writing reviews and submitting them for the Blog Club archives when the titles in question have already been spotlighted there, I honestly could not remember the last time I weighed in on a Club selection in real time, as it were. (So of course my curiosity has prompted me to rifle through the archives. It was my review of Three Kings at the beginning of December.) Clearly I am overdue, so I seized the opportunity last week to watch Alfred Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train.

And I did, in fact, watch the movie on the VRE train, though of course a commuter line is a far cry from the old luxury rail liners. And the title of the movie really only refers to the inciting incident of the plot; extended scenes on the train open the movie but afterwards there’s little action inside the cars, although the train schedule does factor into the climax.

I’m going to jump ahead to the climax, which was the most enjoyable part of the film for me. Anyone passingly familiar with my ramblings hereabouts knows that I am forever curious about tracking down and experiencing first-hand the pop cultural artifacts which loom so large that most people know what they signify regardless of whether or not they’ve seen or read them. I was 13 when Throw Momma From the Train came out and I saw it a time or two on cable. Some time after that I became acquainted with the fact that the crisscross murder idea had its origin in a classic Hitchcock joint, and I suspect if you asked my good friend A.R. Strawman what he knew about Strangers on a Train he would get across the gist of the perfect crime premise. I’d put even money on him additionally knowing that one of the two strangers, the one whose idea the scheme is, is more unbalanced than the other, and goes through with the murder, and that the bulk of the film deals with the other stranger trying to find his way out of the impossible situation thus created. But if you further asked how the movie ends, how it all gets resolved, I think that’s where you’d find the dividing line between people who have seen the flick and people who haven’t; the final reel doesn’t have the reputation preceding it that the set-up does.

But now that I can count myself among those who have internalized the movie in a more direct manner than literate osmosis, I can only say why not?! The ending of Strangers on a Train deserves to be at least as notorious as the beginning, if only because it is so completely and unapologetically bonkers. (Spoilers ahead, yes for a movie over 60 years old, but as I just explicated I don’t doubt there are many people who, like me until recently, always meant to see Strangers on a Train and don’t properly know how it ends.) I am specifically referring to the big setpiece on the out of control merry-go-round, with Guy and Bruno going mano-a-mano as the background (clearly sped-up film) whirls by. Women and children scream! An old carney tries to crawl under the moving carousel to get to the unmanned controls, unmanned because the operator was accidentally shot by the cops! A little boy joins in the fun of beating Bruno about the head and shoulders! The same boy almost gets flung off the merry-go-round, and Guy saves him at his own peril! (Which, by the by, is perhaps the one time in the movie Guy is shown as having any redeeming qualities, as he’s a pretty bland everyman cipher sympathetic only for the outrageous adversities he faces!) All of that would qualify as semi-bonkers, at least, and yet all of that is only prelude to the spectacularly overheated collapse of the entire merry-go-round, which I thought was a decently impressive practical movie-magic effect (considering that it’s as old as my dad). Bruno is crushed to death by the wreckage, and the lighter pried from his cold dead hand (more or less) exonerates Guy. That is how you do a villain’s comeuppance.

In fairness, though, everything leading up to the final carousel confrontation is impressively tight, too. I have a large soft spot for sports movies, clichĂ©s and all, and I was enthralled by the combination of tennis and race-against-the-clock tropes as Guy tries to follow Bruno from D.C. to Metcalf. When Guy is introduced at the outset as an amateur tennis star, it seems to be a simple signifier of his social status (and presumable dreaminess). But it also sets up what might be my favorite single shot of the movie: Guy goes to the country club for a practice match and sits courtside, looks at the spectator stands across the court and sees a mass of human heads swiveling back and forth to follow the action, except for one head aimed straight at him, which the camera zooms in on to reveal Bruno staring him down. I would have considered that a sufficiently fantastic payoff for the earlier mention of Guy playing tennis, so the fact that it becomes integral to the suspense of the climax was doubly rewarding. I’m surprised more movies don’t make use of that somehow, the pace of a sporting event impacting a life-or-death situation. Maybe in anyone else’s hands than Hitchcock’s it’s too ridiculous; the only other example I can think of is the baseball game at the end of The Naked Gun.

For a long time, the two movies I most associated with Hitchcock were The Birds and Psycho. I had never (and still have never) seen either of them all the way through, but The Birds always struck me as a little too silly for its own good, while Psycho is another one of those all-time classics with such an inflated reputation that sitting down and watching it felt redundant given how much I already knew about it. And my estimation of Hitchcock was that he had made some “scary” movies way before my time which would be too tame and boring to be of any interest to a modern child of Stephen King and Freddy Krueger like myself. In the time I’ve been doing the 1001 Movies Blog Club I’ve now seen Shadow of a Doubt, which was great, Vertigo, which was phenomenal, and Strangers on a Train, which is right up there with both of them. Hitch has been pretty well redeemed at this point! Not that he necessarily needed it, but it works out well for me.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Tuesday TV Grab Bag

I hope everyone’s excited to hear all about what tv shows I’ve been watching, some broadcast this week, others anywhere from one to five years old and collected on DVD! Here we go!


My wife and I sat down together for the new episode of How I Met Your Mother last night, and although the pre-credits segment gave me the bad feeling that it was going to be a weakly phoned in episode where things like Ted saying “oh CRAP” in response to a seemingly innocuous phone message are supposed to count as punchlines, we both ended up highly amused by the Rashomon-riff proceedings. Not once did my wife exasperatedly groan, “I just want to know who the mother is!”

Coincidentally enough (or not so coincidentally, considering the ubiquity of syndicated reruns of HIMYM and how often my wife and I flip to them as default background stimulus) I just recently caught the old Season 2 episode “Aldrin Justice” which was not merely referenced but actually namechecked in last night’s ep. So it was pretty top of mind for me to see the connections being drawn between the two storylines, for good and bad.

The absolutely praiseworthy aspect of the continuity between “Aldrin Justice” and “The Ashtray” is that it makes a point about life that rarely gets enough due: everything constantly changes and things rarely remain settled. That’s an inherent advantage of long-running serialized stories like modern tv shows, that by virtue of not being self-contained they can always re-open closed doors (or wounds) and re-examine things. In movies and novels, whatever obstacles must be overcome they are generally considered thoroughly vanquished by the final reel or chapter. In “Aldrin Justice” Lily causes no end of trouble for Ted after Ted gets her a job at his firm because Lily can’t stop treating Ted’s boss the way she would treat an unruly five-year-old, all of which leads to Lily’s epiphany that she’d be happiest as a kindergarten teacher after all. It’s very tidy. “The Ashtray” brings up the idea that Lily actually continues to be deeply ambivalent about teaching kindergarten and regretful about giving up all of her art-related dreams. Some people might see this as the writers not having a good handle on their own characters, or simply not bothering to remember what ground they’ve already covered on the show, but not me. Six years is a long time for anyone, and a profound number of things have happened to Lily in those six years, and it’s completely realistic for her opinions to have shifted and evolved to the point where she may very well be contradicting something she said earlier. Life is like that, not a matter of finding the one philosophical attitude or course of action that will bring you happiness forever, but getting up every morning and evaluating everything around you and everything inside you and making adjustments (going and getting it, energize, as well) as necessary. So fair play there.

The downside of the particular mechanism used in both episodes, confiscating (read: stealing) Hammond’s baseball in the earlier one and the Captain’s ashtray in the latter, is that it makes Lily out to be completely insane. I want to buy into Lily being a gifted kindergarten teacher, and I do consider one prerequisite of the job to be the ability to understand a five-year-old’s developmentally appropriate perspective. I do not consider a prerequisite of the job to be the inability to differentiate between small children and grown adults. Simplified black-and-white rules for behavior are excellent and important tools for molding the behavior of younguns who still have immense capacity for change. Applying those same standards to fully-formed human beings is wrong-headed; not only does the real world not operate like kindergarten, I don’t think it’s really supposed to, and idealizing that environment as The Way All Things Should Be is irrational in a way that goes well beyond the usual suspended-disbelief tomfoolery.

I’m aware of the irony here, in that part of me likes how HIMYM is willing to say that no one is ever finished growing, learning, and changing, and another part of me insists that there’s a finite window for actively influencing people’s development and ignoring the fact that it has closed is not terribly charming, and it all comes out of the same extended storyline. But there it is.

Then again, it’s just a sitcom. Ted screaming like a mezzo-soprano when startled is never not funny. Rondo Alla Turka playing whenever Barney implements a page from the Playbook is never not funny. If HIMYM needs me to turn a blind eye to Lily’s own weird incomprehensible blindspots, I suppose I’m willing.


On Sunday night, while much of the pop culture savvy world was watching PBS as they aired the Season 3 finale of Downton Abbey, my wife and I were watching the Season 2 finale on Blu-ray. We still have the Christmas Episode yet to go, and then we shall see how long we can hold out before ordering Season 3 for ourselves. I suspect not very long, which means that reasonably soon we’ll be in the same waiting-for-Season-4 boat as everyone else.

I am now prepared to admit that the stakes did in fact escalate as Downton Abbey went along through its first couple of seasons. On the one hand, the second season is almost entirely consumed by World War I and it’s all but impossible to handle that historical tragedy with a light touch. Still, on the other hand, the Earl of Grantham’s household suffered exactly one casualty between outbreak and armistice. (And then one more from the Spanish Flu, depending on how far we stretch the definition of “household”.) I would still say that the show as a whole has a standard formula for introducing problems and dispensing with them quickly and straightforwardly, although exceptions to that rule do seem to be slowly yet steadily multiplying.

And, quite possibly, my wife and I may be at the tipping point right now. I couldn’t help but notice the proliferation of headlines online yesterday about Downton Abbey Season 3’s shocking cliffhanger ending and ponderings about how it may be the cruelest show on television. I resisted the urge to click on any of said headlines, but it does appear to portend a noticeable increase in the number of misfortunes befalling the Crawleys which are not rapidly and painlessly solved. Not that it matters, as both my wife and I are totally hooked on the show and would be unable to turn away at this point. I’m not even entirely sure what about it draws me in so much, beyond all the escapism and whatnot I’ve documented before. I’m just a sucker for melodrama.


Speaking of inability to turn away, in keeping with my resolution to finish Smallville by working through its penultimate and ultimate seasons, I did manage to watch the first four episodes of Season 9 already this month, which keeps me on pace (for the moment). The show has of course gone completely bananas at this point, to the point where I have no choice but to assume the writers were mandated with keeping things going as if their target audience did not care in the slightest about continuity with the earlier seasons. Granted, I always assert that the target audience is not comic book geeks but teen soap devotees; trust me, though, people who get into soaps care more than slightly about continuity. Still, it’s an amusing trainwreck. (And there literally is a wreck of the Metropolis elevated train in the Season 9 premiere. Well played, sirs.)

I remember when Smallville was a show about fathers and sons, about Clark Kent grappling with the parallel expectations of both his biological sire and adoptive dad, and Lex Luthor struggling with the toxic relationship between himself and his father, as well as the unlikely (and deeply ironic) friendship between Clark and Lex. By Season 9, the elder Kents and all of the Luthors are no longer anywhere to be found, which I guess makes sense since Clark isn’t a kid anymore. But when they ditched the trappings of Clark’s teenage years, the essence of the show, what did they replace it with? Mostly young adult angst, which is a lot trickier to do well (without becoming exceedingly annoying) than teen angst, plus a lot of will-they-won’t-they love-hate stuff with Lois Lane.

Oh, and weird fetish-service.

I’ve talked before about fan service in Smallville, and I suspect there’s going to be no shortage of that as I barrel towards the finish line. It’s entirely likely that half the time I don’t even notice it anymore because it’s so ingrained in the show’s character. But I have noticed a recent spike in the number of times that Tom Welling picks up and carries one of the actresses, sometimes under extremely flimsy pretexts. Obviously it’s usually Erica Durrance, as above, the Lois to his Clark, but Cassidy Freeman (playing Mercy, the new nominal Big Bad) got a similar ride the first time their characters met. Which of course only leads me to wonder, “Wait, is this, like, a thing?”

Which of course it is, it must be, I am familiar with Rule 34, thanks. I’m just apparently old school enough that the phenomenon of everything in the world (including cradle-carrying) being some kind of turn-on for somebody only occurs to me after a little thought, as opposed to instantaneous association. I suppose all in all it’s nice to see Smallville rolling out new (bizarre) tricks in the titillation trade even at this late stage in the game.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Could be worse

I had to heed my alarm clock pre-dawn today because, although President’s Day is a federal holiday, it is not a holiday for my company and as a contractor I am therefore expected to either expend floating holiday or personal leave time, or else show up to work. I am of course being miserly about all of my leave time right now, since I’ll need all I can get when the baby comes, so I opted to work.

BUT, at least I didn’t have to choke myself into a necktie since working holidays are business casual, so it could be worse.

The VRE wasn’t running today because of the holiday, so I had to forgo my customary relaxing train ride and brave the length of I-66 in my car.

BUT, loads of people apparently were given (or gave themselves) the day off, plus due to the holiday the HOV restrictions were lifted. Traffic was extremely light and, despite leaving the house a little later than usual and having to stop for gas, I actually made it to the office before my usual arrival time. So it could be worse.

There had been warnings disseminated last week that the entire building would be on weekend staffing and operations through Monday, which meant the HVAC would not be on and it could very well get uncomfortably chilly in the office.

BUT, as it turns out, those concerns were wildly exaggerated, and I’ve been so comfortable all day I haven’t even had to reach for my fleece (which lives at the office for just such emergencies). So it could be worse.

Far and away the worst part of today was the fact that my wife called me from her car, ostensibly en route to work, to tell me she was turning around and heading home because our daughter had just ejected the not-inconsiderable contents of her stomach. There’s an argument to be made that dealing with such unpleasantness is part of the whole paid childcare thing, but our babysitter has a baby of her own and it really seemed best to get the little ones separated before any viral exchange took place, if possible.

BUT, since I got in early I was planning on leaving early anyway, and on top of that my contracting boss sent word around at about noon that everyone who showed up today could take off an hour early, on him. In fact by the time this goes up, I’ll already be winging my own way home. So, it could be worse, and hopefully once I’m back at the house to help take care of the little girl (not to mention her pregnanter-every-day mother) things will be considerably better.

Friday, February 15, 2013


I didn’t have a graceful way of bringing it up in my review of The Passion of Joan of Arc (and for once that was enough to dissuade me from just bringing it up awkwardly) but this week’s amusing unintentional overlap was supplied by the book I’m currently reading, Hallucinations by Oliver Sacks. I’ve been slowly working my way through it (it’s interesting but a bit dry even for pop science and not exactly riveting) and sure enough, one of the many references to historical figures who (probably) experienced hallucinatory perceptions was Joan of Arc. I already had The Passion up near the top of my queue because of Roaring 20’s Month and just happened to be reading Hallucinations because it was on the top of my reading pile since Christmas. But coincidences abound.

It did get me thinking about something I really would like to do one of these days, particularly if further proof is ever needed that I have way too much time on my hands. The goal would be to allow whatever pop culture I’m consuming at the moment to determine, via reference points, what pop culture I would consume next. So really, the opposite of what I just described above. Instead of seeing a reference to Joan of Arc in a chapter on ecstatic visions and thinking “That’s funny, I was going to watch The Passion of Joan of Arc tomorrow,” I would see the reference and decide from there to seek out The Passion of Joan of Arc.

Martyrdom jokes!

Although, actually, I would want the references to be a lot more specific. Joan of Arc was a real person and gets namechecked all over the place; I could just as easily say that Sacks’s Hallucinations was pointing me towards a viewing of Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure. Last month I saw Beverly Hills Cop for the first time (I know) and, since this reference-point idea has been floating around in my skull for quite some time, I of course took note of the moment during the climactic shootout when Judge Reinhold brings up the ending of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. That’s an explicit connection from one movie to the next, and that’s the kind of link I would want. Plus, I’ve never seen Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (I KNOW) and one of my current obsessions is running down as many of those gaps in my knowledge base as possible, so that would truly be ideal.

The real trick would be to see how long I could keep these chains going. I don’t know if Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid would explicitly suggest anything else, or if it would be a dead end reference-wise. Could I string together five movies/books/tv shows/comics/albums without hitting a wall? Ten? More? I suppose there would be some strategies I could employ like starting with a relatively recent work (because I’d always be moving backwards in time to prior works), preferably by an author or artist who tends to be naturally reference-heavy (so that I can pick and choose, among multiple references, one that is likely to be similarly target-rich, and so on up the line). Who knows, maybe this will be a project-resolution for 2014 or something. You will have to stay tuned to find out!

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Stars, sauropods and second-guessing

The little guy’s unflagging obsession with astronomy is closing in on two months of dominating most conversations around our house (at least, most conversations in which the little guy takes part, and believe you me he is not shy about inserting himself into every conversation within earshot), but fortunately it has been an interesting experience, with new facets emerging all the time. Probably the single most impressive development is the capacity for memorization the little guy has shown. He knows a LOT of solar system trivia now. Back in July, when we visited my dad, the little guy had just learned the names of the eight major planets because they did a unit on it in pre-school, and he happily sang the mnemonic song (to the tune of “Ten Little Indians”) for the extended family and was enthusiastically applauded because, hey, he was three. Less than a year later, he can name all 13 planets (including Pluto and the other dwarfs, which I’m sure a lot of adults can’t do), plus tell you which ones are rocky planets and which ones are gas giants and list them all again in increasing order of size, rattle off several of the names of moons of other planets, explain where the word “planet” comes from, identify the locations of the asteroid belt and the Kuiper belt … it’s an extensive amount of trivia, and that’s before he starts adding in his own invented planets and their geographical wonders. The other day he regaled me with a guided tour of one of the worlds he discovered that has “purple glass volcanoes”.

And somehow he still has room in his brain for other areas of inquiry, including a burgeoning interest in dinosaurs. Of course, these could not be more archetypal areas of interest for a young boy; there’s no difficulty associated with finding blue footie pajamas covered in triceratopses or rocket ships. But I keep being struck by how those subjects involve such massively epic scopes of scale, which boggle even my supposedly adult mind. T-Rex lived a hundred million years ago! Jupiter is five hundred million miles away! The little guy just has no apparatus whatsoever for those kinds of numbers and abstractions, so they roll right off him. It’s actually very cute, though, when he tries to bring some of this stuff together. Really it’s downright impressive for the mental effort alone, even if he doesn’t arrive at a logical conclusion. I’ll try to walk through one of his proofs: he knows that Pluto was once thought to be a planet and later re-classified as a dwarf planet. He also knows there are other dwarf planets which have “always” been dwarf planets, like Eris. And he also knows that dinosaurs lived a long, long time ago, before there were any humans. So therefore, anything humans might say about “that’s how it’s always been” doesn’t necessarily apply to the dinosaurs. Ergo, when dinosaurs were alive, Eris was still a real planet and hadn’t been demoted yet! QED! You are welcome to try to explain to the little guy how Eris was only discovered in 2005 and its dwarf status is a post-discovery arbitrary label, but you will not get very far.

Meanwhile I will be trying to wrap my own head around the fact that Pluto hasn’t even gone around the sun one full orbit since it was discovered. Crazy stuff! My wife and I have sometimes been watching YouTube videos with the little guy and found our own minds blown repeatedly. One computer-model demonstration of astronomical scale showed various heavenly bodies, with the camera pulling back and the model shrinking as the next, bigger object came into view. Earth is much bigger than Mercury, Jupiter is much bigger than Earth, the Sun is much bigger than Jupiter, that I can handle. But then it started shrinking the sun to show even larger stars, giants and hyper-giants, and I admit it made me weirdly dizzy.

So (for our own sake) we haven’t been pushing too hard for the hardcore scientific videos, although some of them are geared towards kids and are pretty appealing to the little guy. But he prefers the cartoony videos, preferably set to some song or another about the solar system, and I can report that there is a surprisingly deep catalog of those online. Some of them are genuinely clever (and downright ear-wormy) and others are dreadful, but the little guy gets a kick out of them. He’s all but given up being read to at bedtime, preferring to just watch two or three “space videos” on my phone between brushing his teeth and being tucked in, but still, it’s working and I’m disinclined to fight it.

Also speaking of ear-wormy songs about scientific disciplines, yet another highly gratifying aspect of all this has been the little guy’s introduction to They Might Be Giants, who of course started putting out children’s albums some years ago. After Here Come the ABC’s and such, John and John moved on to headier topics in a compilation called Here Comes Science, which appeared in our house at Christmas. Technically, I bought the CD/DVD combo as a gift for the little guy to give to his mother (who is a significantly bigger TMBG fan than the baseline most right-thinking people should start from) but it has fulfilled its purpose as entertainment the whole family can enjoy. The fact that the little guy now often goes around sing-shouting “The SUN is a MASS of incandescent GAS!” pleases me to no end. (All right, technically he often garbles the word “incandescent” but the enthusiasm more than makes up for it.)

So yeah, he’s soaking up factoids and lyrics voraciously, to the point where strangers assume we must be homeschooling him or something. We’re not, it’s almost entirely him following his own bliss, and we’re planning on enrolling him in public school kindergarten in the fall and keeping our fingers crossed that he won’t be too bored. Also that he won’t freak out about the transition from three days a week of daycare to five days a week of mandatory institutionalized education.

In the same vein, my wife and I made the momentous decision to pull his sister out of daycare, and tomorrow is going to be her last day (barring emergency drop-ins and the like; her brother is going to finish out the Montessori year through June, at least). Not that we had the slightest problem with the care the little girl was receiving, but the fact is we have a new plan for my wife’s long-term employment post-Baby#3 to be part-time, and factoring that into the budget means factoring out the satisfactory but not-cheap daycare for our daughter. It makes perfect sense in terms of numbers added up in columns, but of course it’s not without its pitfalls. The little guy has been in daycare for almost the entirety of his four years at this point, and as mentioned he’ll transition to kindergarten in August. Daycare has had certain socializing and civilizing influences on him, and by and large I’d say they were positive. But his sister isn’t going to have the same exact influences. Maybe that’s fine. Maybe that’s even better than fine, because my son and daughter are two very different children with different personalities and different needs and maybe the little girl will thrive being home with mom (and the occasional sitter) all the time the same way the little guy thrived away from home. Maybe? But bottom line, she’ll get a different early childhood than her brother, and there’s a big part of me that has a hard time coming to terms with that.

The mere fact that we are having a third child just compounds this (irrational? I hope so) sense that I’m not doing right by my kids because I’m not achieving perfect and immaculate parity among them. The older son will have had things one way, and the daughter another way, and the younger son yet another. I’m aware that things being fair does not always mean that things are identical, or even equivalent. I’m not even sure if absolute fairness is supposed to be the end goal. I suspect that part of me would prefer to have every element of all three of their lives be totally parallel because that would absolve me of having to answer for any decisions as to who got what. You all got the same things across the board, make of it what you will! But of course as soon as I say that out loud it announces its own ridiculousness.

Raising kids is never easy. Keeping them safe and whole and physically healthy and growing is only part of that, and it’s mainly logistics and it does get easier as you have a second, third &c. child. You agonize over which daycare center to use for your firstborn, and you feel sick to your stomach the first few times you drive away from the building leaving your precious bundle behind, but the process is streamlined (if never eliminated) for future siblings. Same goes for figuring out feeding and bathing and diapering and clothing and sleeping and playing. But raising them, instilling values in them and guiding them towards becoming the person they were meant (and hopefully want) to be, that probably shouldn’t be something where the work you put in on the older ones gives you any shortcuts for the younger ones. Even if the little girl did end up in four years of daycare, I’d still need to be aware of and responsive to so many more of her needs than just getting lunch in her and scheduling her naps and preventing her from grievous bodily harm. It’s work, if I’ve learned anything I’ve learned it’s a frigging ton of work, but I know it’s work worth doing.

Love, Immortal Style

Valentine's Day falling on the day of the god of thunder?!

Must be a sign, of how very much I do love my wife. She shares some of my geeky fandoms (and graciously indulges me in the rest) but there is nothing* in the world I am a bigger fan of than her.

(*With the exception perhaps of our children, though I rarely see the need to slice and dice the affections all bound up in my family, marriage and offspring. In any case, the kids will be getting their usual Thursday-limelight post later this afternoon. But first things first.)

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Agony and Irony (The Passion of Joan of Arc)

Roaring 20's Month continues as, via sheer coincidence, today is Ash Wednesday and the slice of early cinematic history up for consideration is The Passion of Joan of Arc, a silent film directed by Carl Theodor Dreyer and released in 1928.

The Passion of Joan of Arc is a movie that was covered by the 1001 Movies Blog Club some time ago, and it also happens to be in the top 10 of Sight & Sound’s all-time greatest movies list. All well and good, but whenever I approach any work that was created long enough ago to be considered historic, I automatically set my expectations a little lower. That becomes doubly true when it also happens to be an early example of its medium; a novel from the late 1800’s is going to sit outside my personal frame of reference, but at least it’s a descendent of a long tradition. A movie from the silent era is both outside of my reference and almost devoid of its own contemporaneous references as well. Everything progresses and evolves and grows and improves, which generally means that prototypes are more “interesting” than “good”. I can understand The Passion of Joan of Arc being considered an important landmark, and maybe I might notice one or two geekily amusing things about it, but I did not anticipate that the movie would really have any hooks, let along manage to get any into me.

OK, so was that adequate set-up to telegraph the oh-how-wrong-I-was that comes next? Any preconceived notions I had about how silent films are usually about as visually dynamic as camcordered school plays were dismissed from the very opening, with a long slow tracking shot the moves from left to right within the chamber that will house the trial of Joan of Arc. A number of older men in religious vestments are seated with their backs to the camera, but their faces are visible because they are all turned to the right, straining to catch a glimpse of something coming their way. The movement of the camera combined with the restless postures of the actors creates this visceral need to see what’s approaching, and then finally the answer is revealed, as Joan, small and waifish with her gamine haircut and her men’s clothes, is led through the door in shackles. Directors control what the audience sees as well as how they see it, and Dreyer clearly understood that completely and exploited it to the fullest.

The movie then proceeds to depict Joan’s trial, and as with most silent movies this is done through a combination of pantomime acting and intertitle cards of dialogue; not everything every character says gets a card, but the gist comes across all the same. It’s to the movie’s benefit that the historically-sourced story being told is larger than life, which requires Joan’s saintly, wide-eyed innocence and her inquisitors’ contemptuous zealotry. But the actors imbue everything with genuine and recognizable human emotion, even in exaggeratedly angled close-ups, particularly Maria Falconetti as Joan. Her performance is often cited as the main reason why The Passion of Joan of Arc is such an enduring masterpiece, and rightly so. As the action (such as it is) moves from the trial chamber to Joan’s cell to the torture chamber and back to Joan’s cell again, Falconetti holds the center and her plight grips the audience. Considering that Joan’s fate is a foregone conclusion, that is no mean feat.

I do need to point out that I noticed a couple of glaring anachronisms in the movie. When Joan is condemned to death her cute-short hair is cut down to the scalp by a monk wielding a pair of fairly modern-looking scissors, which I’m just about positive did not exist as such in the 1400s. There’s also a monk who attends Joan’s execution wearing modern eyeglasses. I’d like to be able to say that these are sly, on-purpose bits of surrealism included by Dreyer, but I think it’s far more likely they were simply oversights. Which is odd, since the haircutting ends with the locks on the floor being swept up by a reasonably medieval-looking broom onto a reasonably medieval-looking wooden tray. Still, I must cut Dreyer some slack because he did use a significant amount of his budget to build an entire freaking (concrete) castle for use as a set, including a working drawbridge (we’ll get back to that in a moment). This must rank up there near my personal favorite example of directorial excess, Werner Herzog’s transporting a steamship over a small mountain for Fitzcarraldo.

At any rate, the movie simply works as a very affecting, intimate portrait of a fascinating historical figure. I’m sure to a certain extent the music helped; I watched the Criterion Collection edition of the film which is scored by the oratorio “Voices of Light”, composed in 1994 and inspired by the film. But I don’t want to take anything away from what Dreyer accomplishes in silent black and white moving images. The film has an almost meditative quality, which of course is apt. And then, just when I had fully settled into this thoughtful mode of experiencing the film, it reaches its climax, moving from interiors to exteriors as Joan of Arc is burned at the stake. At two separate points Dreyer has the camera follow a crowd through city gates from overhead, with the camera inverting itself in an unbroken take, and if that’s not supposed to symbolize the world turning upside down in madness as an innocent girl is condemned to death by the church for believing in God too much, then somebody come and take back my English degree. (It’s in the basement, I think.) The movie itself pretty much goes insane as Joan is martyred, with every shot focusing on something symbolic, from birds in flight against the sky to growing flames, weeping peasants to worms crawling out of skulls disinterred by the gravedigger. After Joan expires a full-on riot breaks out, with castle guards subduing the holy hell out of outraged peasants using spiked ball-and-chains, only to ultimately retreat and raise the drawbridge (remember the drawbridge?). The violence of the guards attacking the rioters is visceral and palpable, and all the more disturbing as it’s intercut with shots of the stake still burning like wild, with a very realistic Falconetti-shaped dummy lashed to it.

So The Passion of Joan of Arc is a movie that does it all, and more importantly did it all with very little in the way of precedent to look to for guidance. It’s not merely an amazing film considering it was made in 1928, it is an amazing film, full stop.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013


I can’t quite seem to figure out if I don’t particularly have anything to write about today or if I just don’t particularly want to write about anything today. Maybe a bit of both, but I’ll dive in and see what I can do all the same.

My wife and I did a fair amount of socializing over this past weekend and I got into some interesting conversations about all manner of things, from Stephen King to Pandora Internet Radio to the upcoming new Star Wars movies. In other words, all manner of things that are really interesting to me. But it may very well be that in the course of those evenings, I got a good deal of that stuff out of my system.

I’m excited about spring training for baseball (catchers and pitchers have already reported!) but less psyched about the Yankees’ chances overall this year. I’m having a hard time denying the general consensus that New York’s roster is too old and too expensive. But I can only wait and see what they put on the field, and that’s still several weeks off.

It’s Lincoln’s birthday, and Darwin’s birthday, and my brother-in-law’s birthday. And they are all some pretty sweet dudes! But there’s no scintillating insight I can add to what’s already glutting teh interwebs today for two out of three of them, or without grossly infringing on the privacy of the third.

I caught up on most of the work stuff yesterday, and I watched another 1920’s silent movie which I’ll review tomorrow, and the kids have been up to all their usual craziness (and then some) which I’ll divulge on Thursday. We’re still waiting to work something out with the bank to unload the old townhouse, and slowly but surely working on fixing up the house where we actually live, both in terms of general upkeep and specific newborn prep.

Probably a recipe for skipping a day on the blog if ever there was one, but I just hate doing that, even if my only other option is to acknowledge that nothing headline-worthy has gone down lately and that I lack the mental wherewithal to invent anything of similar caliber. Everything is holding steady!

Right then, we’ll try this again tomorrow.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Picking battles

For those of you coming in late, I have a major project on my plate right now which involves getting an entire application moved from one environment to another, something which I did not have a choice about because it is a reactive move in response to a completely independently maintained yet critical-to-my-system application jumping environments. Nor do I have much control over my application actually moving, as I am extremely restricted in what I am allowed to do to the inner workings of my application and have zero power whatsoever on the points of contact between my application and the rest of the network. All I can do is request the environment change and then pester people about it constantly, first getting the very idea to take hold with any traction and then getting the people with the authority and wherewithal to spend the time and effort necessary to make it happen. Said time and effort should be minimal, and if it were my time and effort required it would already be done (about fifty times over) but it isn’t, so it’s not.

And then late last week my application endured a double-whammy of problems which, again and as always, had nothing to do with me or the performance of my duties in maintaining things. First the whole app had a few hours of downtime when the server failed to come back up Thursday morning after overnight maintenance and I had to go through the squeaky wheel motions to get somebody to kick it into gear again, and then a system security patch had unintended side effects which meant all day Friday the app was available but one crucial bit of functionality was being blocked by the network protocols. These side effects actually affected numerous systems, not just my little corner of the world, so it really could not have had less to do with me, but at the same time I was plenty busy answering questions from my users who wanted to know what was going on (hard to explain) and when it would be fixed (no control and no idea).

The extra argh-flavored cherry on top of all this was of course that the people who will ultimately have to execute the transfer of my application are the same people who have to deal with these environmental errors when they occur, so when short-term problems are being dealt with, my major long-term need is just being ignored. This project was something I was tasked with in early November with the hopeful expectation that it would be completed by the end of the year. Obviously now here we are about six weeks into the new year and the incremental progress I’ve been able to cajole out of the power-wielding parties has been slight. And at this point (loosely defined as “the point at which I am literally counting loads of laundry and sessions of ironing I will have to do to get from here to there”) I am sensing the imminence of FMLA time off for the birth of our third. I am honestly not sure which thought is more frustrating: that the timing of my absence might cause the process to stall, or that I might return from weeks of leave and discover that nothing has changed.

But not all is woe (it never is). Part of me really wanted to get this project satisfactorily completed on the original timeline because that would dovetail nicely with my annual review at work and represent something I could point at to justify my continued employment and compensation. Didn’t get what I wanted there, exactly, but the annual reviews must go on. And mine went about as well as could be expected. If anything, I think my boss may have scored me a little higher in deference to the fact that he knows how frustrating it is to have this weight around my neck (and better me than him, I suspect his thinking goes). I really don’t think it’s viable to try to milk this thing for another whole year, but at least there’s a silver lining to it in the here and now.

Friday, February 8, 2013

Behold ... and be amazed!!!

I don't normally do the just-link-to-something-else sort of post, but this is an exceptionally cool link and it's been kind of a long week, so ...

The above customized image (you're gonna want to click on it to embiggen, oh yes you are) was created using the Pulp-O-Mizer located at If you are of certain predilections like myself, it is endlessly amusing to play around with it, which owes just as much to the fact that it's an elegantly well-designed user interface as to the delightful subject matter.

This probably won't be the last time you see one of those mock-covers around here, too. Just sayin'.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Sneak attack of awesome

Getting back to the Super Bowl party again for a moment … dang, there were a lot of kids in attendance. Clutch has three daughters (one of whom is a teenager who invited a couple of her friends over as well), Slick has two daughters, another buddy has one daughter and yet another has two sons, so that’s like ten children right there before you add in my two little ones. The other two boys came late and left early, so for certain chunks of the night the little guy was the only male under the age of 35 in the house. Fortunately, he didn’t mind being outnumbered, especially since Clutch’s middle daughter had been tasked with, and was doing a stellar job at, keeping the younger kids amused and out of trouble. (Sometimes it is very nice to be on the trailing edge of the curve as far as timing of kids compared to our friends; we have pre-schoolers, and they have free babysitters.)

But nevertheless, when I came up from the basement to change my little girl’s diaper, the little guy was happy and excited to see me, and that was a sweet feeling. I do try to enjoy these fleeting moments wherein my children actively want to be around me. I know the overwhelming urges for cut-loose independence are generally associated with adolescence, which means I should still have years to revel in the adoration of my own progeny, but then again my progeny have often been on accelerated schedules as far as cognitive development goes, so for all I know the little guy will have perfected the disaffected aloofness of a teenager right around his seventh birthday.

In any case, even though all I was doing was changing a diaper (and a doozy of one, at that) the little guy wanted nothing more than to be within arm’s reach of me for a few minutes, and of course I was not going to deny him that. In fact I took advantage of his relative pliability under the circumstances to go ahead and zip him into his pajamas, which were in his sister’s diaper bag, as soon as I finished changing her. The plan all along had been to get the kids ready for bed at Clutch’s house, since we’d be staying past their bedtimes, and let them fall asleep in the car on the way home. And the plan worked, for which I was entirely grateful.

The only tiny glitch came in the form of the Super Bowl itself, which was playing inches away from the three of us as day clothes were being exchanged for footed sleepwear. Not so much the game as the commercials (which rightly or wrongly are intrinsic to the Super Bowl experience), which is a subject I have touched on before. What happened was, while I was getting the little girl ready to eventually end up in her crib, a commercial started playing with a close up of a jet airliner in flight. The little guy lit right up as he yelled “Airplane!” and stepped even closer to the tv screen. He still loves vehicles and machines of all kinds, and the jet did in fact look very powerful and cool. Cut to the interior of the plane, with a horrible gaping hole in the fuselage and people scrambling and struggling not to get sucked out into the slipstream. And then people flying out the hole and tumbling to certain death? My stomach sank and it was all I could do to hope against improbable hope that somehow the commercial would reverse the awfulness of its first few seconds …


And I wasted absolutely no time pointing this out to the little guy: “Look! It’s Iron Man! He’s coming to save all the people!” Granted, Iron Man only has enough time to save two or three of the plummeting innocents before the tv spot runs out of time, but at least the idea of order had been restored. And it was the little guy who expressed to me what the takeaway should be: “Yeah, Iron Man can save anybody!” I was thankful that the little guy happens to be very familiar with who Iron Man is, because I bought him some Iron Man toys at a ridiculously young age (his first Christmas, when he was not yet four months old) more for my wife’s amusement than his, because she and I had gone to see Iron Man in the theater when she was pregnant with the little guy and the Dolby surround-sound explosions and whatnot had elicited quite the kicky response from our in utero viewing companion. So the constant presence of the character, not to mention his status as part man and part machine, has bred a certain affection in the little guy’s heart, and he knows Iron Man is one of the good guys and there’s nothing terribly scary about an Iron Man commercial. So, once again, trauma (barely) averted! One of these days (years and years hence) he and I are going to sit down and watch the original movie. By then, he’ll probably think that its 2008 special effects are quaint.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

What a tweeeeest! (The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari)

I interrupt my ruminations on Super Bowl parties (though I will return to the subject tomorrow) to remind everyone that February is ROARING 20's MONTH! And what better entry point to the subject at hand, than ... a silent German expressionist classic and proto-horror film , The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Technically this is one of the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die, although the Club hasn’t officially weighed in on it yet, so I can’t link back to a bunch of other reviews.

However, in one of those pop culture convergences I am forever stumbling upon, I will mention that I recently was interviewed by the 1001 Movies Blog Club administrator and I took advantage of the platform to wax nostalgic with appreciation for the movie The Crow starring the late lamented Brandon Lee. The Crow is in no way shape or form a Must See flick, but it holds a special place in my heart for a variety of reasons which are subjective and personal and no doubt born of right-time-and-place circumstances which means that trying to evangelize for them is really not going to get me very far. But I will defend my belief that one of the strongest elements of the film is Lee’s performance, something which really crystallized for me when I saw a behind-the-scenes featurette about the movie in which Lee talked about how liberating it was to play Eric Draven, avenging spirit from beyond the grave. Because, as Lee put it (rather self-evidently, but hey, I was 19 and thought it was profound enough at the time), since people don’t really come back from the dead, no one knows how a person who did come back from the dead would really behave, and that freed Lee to play it any way he wanted. And he does some wild tonal shifts throughout the movie, from grief-shattered wreck to cocky badass streetfighter to sarcastic clown to soulful poet, and generally makes a story about violent supernatural retribution way more fun than any movie with a near-black palette and a soundtrack by The Cure, Nine Inch Nails and Henry Rollins has any right to be.

Much as I love The Crow (and mourn the further filmography of Brandon Lee that it should have kicked off), and much as I have hunted down like-minded analyses of the flick over the years, I have never heard anyone draw an explicit line of connection to it from precedents in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. But it jumped out at me pretty hard all the same. True, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is probably fairly obscure to all but the most hardcore cinephiles, so assuming that Brandon Lee had ever seen it is a bit of a stretch. If not, it’s an exceptionally eerie coincidence.

Quick synopsis of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari: two men are talking when a woman walks by in a strange daze. The younger man says the woman is his fiancĂ© and offers to tell the older man a strange story about something that happened to them some time ago. Most of the rest of the movie is then a flashback recalling how the man, Francis, and the woman, Jane, as well as their friend, Alan, lived in a small town together where a carnival was held, and one of the attractions was Doctor Caligari and his fortune-telling somnambulist, Cesare. (This is a non-scientific version of somnambulism wherein Cesare has allegedly been asleep for twenty years and has no volition except for the commands of Dr. Caligari.) Alan asked Cesare how long he would live, and Cesare predicted Alan’s imminent death, a prophecy fulfilled when Alan was murdered that night. Francis investigated the crime, assuming Dr. Caligari had something to do with it, and Cesare attacked Jane in her sleep, but kidnapped her rather than killing her. An angry mob of townspeople chased after Cesare and rescued Jane, and Cesare fell while fleeing and died. Dr. Caligari disappeared in the confusion, and Francis went ot the local insane asylum to see if maybe Caligari had been an escaped patient all along. But he discovered that Caligari was a cover identity being used by the director of the asylum himself. The director was obsessed with an old legend about a somnambulist who was compelled to commit murder by his master, a monk named Caligari, and when a new somnambulist patient was admitted to the asylum the director leapt at the chance to live out Caligari’s misdeeds. Confronted by Francis’s accusations and the corpse of Cesare, the director went fully mad and was committed to a cell in his own asylum. The film then returns to the two men from the beginning, with the old man looking skeptical and Francis looking pleased at having recounted his tale. Francis then returns to the asylum from his story, which is populated with many patients, including a “Jane” who believes she is a queen, and a “Cesare” in his own sad, silent and isolated state, plus a director of the asylum who is (a much more benign-looking) “Caligari”. So the hero/narrator was crazy all along!!! OR WAS HE????

Both the framing device structure and the swerve of an ending were fundamentally innovative for their time, and obviously cast long shadows of influence, so if you’re looking for justification for the movie as a Must-See, there you go. But even more striking is the portrayal of Cesare by the legendary Conrad Veidt. All of the other players on the screen give performances which are about what you’d expect for the silent era, all theatrically broad expressions and gestures. But Veidt animates Cesare with unearthliness in his slow, sinuous movements and his inhuman mannerisms.

And of course, the look of the character(s) must be noted: the dark hair, pale skin, stylized dark makeup on the face, and skintight black clothes. Expressionistic Cesare definitely looks like a forerunner of goth-y Eric Draven, but their kinship is even more deeply rooted in the way both carry themselves, differentiating themselves from everyone else in the picture around them, the mythical somnambulist every bit as much an exotic and unknowable phenomenon as the re-animated revenge-seeker. Lee’s performance might be more sustained and more multi-faceted (he does have the benefit of dialogue) but Veidt’s is no less impressive, especially considering that it came to life with 74 fewer years of cinematic history behind it. Veidt’s presence elevates The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari from a weirdly interesting curiosity to enduring art.

The bonus points for giving me a new, ridiculously artsy talking point to pump up my favorite 90’s graphic novel adaptation, however, are also very much appreciated.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Xtra Laidback Viewing and Inspired Interactions

I seem to vaguely recall watching Super Bowl XXV at a fairly large party thrown by some friends of my parents. That was the year the New York Giants barely escaped with the Lombardi Trophy after Scott Norwood of the Buffalo Bills (now infamously) failed to convert a last-second field goal attempt. I have to imagine there are lots of people who would remember Norwood’s name, or the ignominious beginning of the Bills’ Super Bowl losing streak, without actually having committed to memory which team it was the Bills had faced. But since the Giants are my team, I’m obviously not one of those people. I’m pretty sure just about everyone at that party was a Giants fan as well, which is hardly shocking since this goes back to when we were living in New Jersey, well within the Meadowlands’ sphere of influence. Anyway, I bring that up because it’s really the last memory I have of attending a Super Bowl party and getting any kind of team-affiliation solidarity out of it, personally. Since then I’ve been in Virginia whenever the Giants have made it to the Super Bowl, and notwithstanding the implicit support of my wife or general antipathy aimed at the Patriots, I’ve been the only diehard rooting for the G-Men at the party.

And obviously the even more common occurrence has been that I haven’t had much rooting interest at all. Of course by the goose-gander principle I’ve been a Steelers booster for my wife’s sake when they’ve made it to the big game. And when my buddy Slick saw his Eagles go all the way to a showdown with the Pats in XXXIX, I was ready to be happy for him if Philly prevailed (but, alas, no). But when the championship has come down to Bucs-Raiders, or Saints-Colts? I’ve been fairly disinterested in the outcomes. Clearly, then, the whole reason to attend a Super Bowl party under those circumstances is to enjoy the crowd for its own sake, not merely because they all root for the same team as me.

And Super Bowl XLVII fell into that category as well. Despite the reasonable proximity of Baltimore, none of the guests at the party I attended were Ravens fans (well, one guy showed up in an understated Ravens t-shirt but I honestly had no idea how seriously to take that sartorial assertion, and didn’t ask). My buddy Clutch and his wife hosted, as usual, and he is an old-school Redskins fan, which means I am still waiting to see what he is even like during a Super Bowl when it’s his team on the field. (I may wait forever; some people get weirdly intense about the whole thing and if the Redskins ever do make a legit run at it, Clutch may either cancel the party or hide upstairs the whole time or something.) I think ultimately whether or not people at the party were rooting for (or against) the 49ers or the Ravens came down to whether they felt more strongly about somebody saying inflammatory homophobic things recently, or getting away with being accessory to murder quite some time ago. Thus sports passions were low, but camaraderie was high, and that was thorough enough justification for me to have made the trip.

I get the feeling this is turning into yet another one of my trademark posts where I rhetorically bend over backwards and protest too much to prove a point which may or may not be true and isn’t really that big of a deal either way anyway, but oh well, I’ve gone too far to turn back now. I’ve never even attempted to deny that my friends and I are all a bunch of geeks, but I do sometimes feel compelled to note that we are not stereotypical geeks. Yes, we indulge in hobbies from comic book collecting to tabletop mini-gaming, we’re the target demo for tv shows like Fringe and Supernatural and Smallville, all true. But we break the stereotypes by virtue of being well-rounded. None of us are athletes but we do enjoy professional sports, and we comprehend the rules and the strategies. We have our teams that we’ve been rooting for since we were kids. We’ve been in fantasy football leagues, oft times pitted against one another. We are not the one-dimensional nerds who would go to a Super Bowl party and never glance at the competition playing out on-screen, but we are capable of distracting one another on random tangents when said competition isn’t terribly gripping television.

All that said, there was a zinger lobbed at the male half of the crowd right after the Star Trek: Into Darkness trailer, when someone observed that that was the quietest moment of intense concentration witnessed all night. I don’t doubt that was the case, I’m just saying: duh, none of us were pulling for either team, and even if somebody were it still wouldn’t be all of us. But we all get just about equally geeked about Star Trek! (or in my case, J.J. Abrams!)

So this is how I’m trying to characterize my friends: none of us are so narrow in our interests that we’d ever say “Well I don’t care about the Super Bowl at all but I guess I’ll go to the Super Bowl party, the best part is the commercials anyway.” We care about the Super Bowl itself, at least a little. We also care about the commercials, whether to make fun of them or to get psyched about what we’ll be seeing in the movie theater this summer. We also care about eating buffalo wings and mozzarella sticks and chips-n-salsa and drinking beer, and we also care about getting a night to just hang out as (quasi-)grown-ups while all of our respective children amuse themselves, with the older ones keeping an eye on the younger ones. And despite having watched almost all of the last ten or twelve Super Bowls with these people, I still learn stuff about my friends all the time. Like the fact that they all have surprisingly strong opinions about Shakespeare! I wish I could remember how the subject came up, but at one point during the pre-game show there was a very animated discussion about the Bard’s comedies versus his tragedies and whether the latter were worth reading outside of high school assignments. When I’m at a gathering and somebody namechecks Titus Andronicus and it’s not me, that’s usually a sign I’m at least in the right place.

Alas, poor Unitas.

And if that weren’t enough, later in the evening I was called from the adult-zone of the big screen to the kid-zone, as my daughter needed to have her diaper changed. (Desperately needed it, to be honest; the time had gotten away from me a bit.) I took her someplace relatively out of the way and got her all cleaned up, though I should note that this out of the way place had a television showing the game as well. As I was finishing up my buddy Slick popped his head into the room and said “Dude, you missed the trailer for Iron Man 3 … BUT! We DVR’ed it and it’s queued up for you when you come back downstairs.” I laughed and told him I hadn’t missed it at all thanks to my tv-equipped choice in changing spots, but thanked him all the same for thinking of me. A small gesture, but the end result was again the same, letting me know I was in the right place.

Monday, February 4, 2013

Security is my business (until next Monday)

This week at work it is my turn to perform the nightly security checks of our office space at the close of business each day. For reasons of national security I will skip the details of what exactly that entails, but from a personal perspective it means that instead of departing the Big Gray at 3:30 or so to catch a 3:57 train back home, I have to stay until at least 4:30 every evening (the earliest time the check rounds can begin) and hit the bricks closer to 5:00 to grab the 5:17. It’s a little annoying for me, as I am nothing if not a creature of habit and I dislike extensive disruptions of my routine, and more than a little inconvenient on the home front because for five nights in a row I am not going to walk in the door of my house until about 6:30.

The ideal end-of-the-kids’-day schedule at our house entails starting to cook dinner sometime in the 5 o’clock hour, putting said dinner on the table at 6:00, giving the kids plenty of time to eat (whether it’s a token number of reluctant bites or gobbling down second or third helpings of growth-spurt fuel) plus some more time to play after they get down from the table, and then starting to head upstairs around quarter to 7, so the little girl can get her bath and be in bed by 7:30 at the latest. The little guy gets his bath after his sister, and he’s supposed to be in bed by 8:00. The point being, for five consecutive nights I am going to completely miss the dinner-cooking-and-eating window, and one of two things is going to happen: either my lovely wife will have to cook dinner by herself without backup in the crucial role of keeping the kids happily entertained and out of mortal peril, and similarly shorthandedly get both kids to sit and eat (have I mentioned that lately the little girl has been going through a phase where some nights she throws herself on the floor in a screaming tantrum if she isn’t allowed to sit on one of her parents’ laps while she eats?) OR the entire schedule is simply going to be pushed back with dinner prep only getting started when I return home. None of which is the end of the world, really (with the possible exception of Option B coming into play this Thursday, which would mean one or both kids not getting fully settled into bed until after 8 p.m., which means my wife and I would miss the long-delayed return of Community since we still don’t have a DVR, and not gonna lie, we’d both be a little crushed about that I reckon) but as I said, there’s an inconvenience factor.

It could be worse! There was a time, which seems like ancient history but really wasn’t all that long ago, when my wife was working multiple shifts per week that stretched late into the evening, well past not just dinnertime but often past the kids’ bedtimes. If she were still on that schedule, then the slight aggravations of timing this week would be overshadowed by the guilt of having to leave our kids at an increasingly depopulated daycare center until I could pick them up for five straight nights. But these days, thankfully, my wife only ever works until mid-afternoon or so, and the kids can be retrieved from daycare well before inescapable feelings of abandonment enter the picture.

(You may wonder, given that I used to get the kids home, cook them dinner and feed it to them, and bathe them and get them into bed on schedule before my wife got home, why my wife can’t pull off the first half of the same feat. I’m sure she could pull off the whole thing, if it came to that, but bear in mind that 1. The kids were measurably smaller then, especially the little girl, who was also commensurately more docile, and 2. I was never nearly 8 months pregnant when I was solo-tasked with keeping things on schedule.)

I don’t believe I’ve actually reported on my wife’s evolving work situation much lately, no doubt due in part to the fact that it has been in flux and somewhat hard to pin down. But things are settling down, in a positive way for the most part. For quite a while my wife has known that her last day teaching aspiring vet techs would be February 15th, so that date is one we are both looking forward to with an expectation of relief. I’m glad she took that teaching job, if for no reason other than it gave her some experience in and first-hand insight into a potential career path that she may very well find herself on again in the future, but it was problematic at best and neither of us will be overly sorry to see that chapter close. The second job my wife had picked up doing vet work for a nearby animal shelter is also winding down, perhaps accelerated by certain unpleasant elements but in truth never intended to be a permanent arrangement anyway. We still find ourselves unable to circumvent the need to be a dual-income family, so my wife has braved the job market and found a new employer (yet again! She switched jobs right before the little guy was born, interviewing in a very similarly gravid state as during this most recent round!) and that new job is ramping up to begin soon. But, as I mentioned, the new job hasn’t really started yet, while the soon-to-be old jobs are either holding steady or being cut back, so my lack of availability for afternoon daycare runs is not so traumatic.

Not to mention the fact that it seems better that I get the security detail over with here and now, knowing that my next turn won’t come around for 13 or 14 months, rather than have it fall to me some time in early-to-mid March when my wife might go into labor at the drop of a hat.

And as my wife very wisely pointed out, staying late at the office every evening gives me the leeway to sleep in a little and come in later than normal as well and yet still clock my requisite number of contract hours for the pay period. I was exceptionally grateful for that wiggle room this morning, as I would take as many z’s as I could get after SuperBowl-ing it up last night. The party we attended was fun, and I will be circling back around to that topic throughout the week I’m sure! But, having duly informed everyone that my job remains more or less constant while my wife’s overall employment picture is shifting into a better and brighter configuration, I will quit while I’m ahead for now.