Saturday, June 29, 2013

Saturday Grab Bag ... To Go!

I'm still not sure how much (if any) sense I was making in my post on Tuesday about the fine lines separating "stories with scary bits" from "horror stories", but as promised I am still thinking about it. After hitting Publish, I remembered one of my buddies and his steadfast aversion to horror, including big thick blanket statements like "I don't do horror movies." This actually came up recently as he was part of the crowd with which I saw Man of Steel, and more to the point part of the crowd standing around outside the theater afterwards talking about the movie and all sorts of related topics, from the inevitable Superman sequels to the also inevitable Justice League follow-up, which led to discussing The Avengers movie franchise, and from there to Joss Whedon, and thence on to Cabin in the Woods, a movie which I like (a lot, in fact, quite a lot). Yet which my anti-horror buddy has not seen and basically refuses to see, because it is technically a horror movie. However, my buddy is a huge fan of Whedon's Buffy the Vampire Slayer tv series; he is in fact the very person who loaned me and my wife the box sets of every season on DVD, back when we were "me and my girlfriend" and I was belatedly watching the show for the very first time. And I pointed out to my buddy how Buffy and Cabin have similar sensibilities, they both involve humans fighting monsters, and there's really not much of anything in Cabin that's inherently more nightmare-inducing than anything from Buffy. I'm not sure if I won him over or not, but that's another example of my point, in a nutshell, that the labels we attach to things often obscure the particular merits of those things. Weird.


Today is the 400th anniversary of the original Globe Theater burning to the ground, from whence we get our modern aphorism "People who put on plays in thatched-roof wooden buildings shouldn't fire real cannons on stage for special effects." Forsooth!


Honestly I'm pretty light on grab bag items this week, but I did really want to get the scary-v.-horror one above out there. Perhaps more next weekend! Or not, seeing as how that's kind of a holiday weekend (although both my wife and I are scheduled to work on Friday the 5th). Maybe the weekend after that!

Friday, June 28, 2013

It’s no better to be safe than sorry

As I alluded to yesterday, we have some family coming into town this weekend: my Little Bro, his wife, my dad and his wife and my Little Sis are all due to show up on our doorstep some time tomorrow morning, spend the entire day (Little Bro and Mrs. Little Bro will crash in our guest room, while dad/stepmom/sis will overnight at a nearby hotel) and then depart some time pre-noon Sunday for their respective long trips back to upstate New York and Connecticut. As is the case with most families, the centerpiece of the visit will be dinner on Saturday, which I am planning on seizing as a good excuse to fire up the grill and cook up a herd’s worth of burgers and dogs, which gets right to the meat (pun gluttonously intended) of why summer is my favorite time of year.

The occasion of this extended family cookout has got me thinking of one of the (admittedly few) deprivations of my childhood: my parents didn’t let me eat hot dogs.

Well, they did and they didn’t. Let me back up. When I was little I was prone to bad headaches, not full-blown migraines but serious head-pounders that just made me want to put my head down (and sometimes throw up). To this day I don’t know exactly what caused them, maybe the earliest stages of my lifelong progression of allergies all up in my sinuses, maybe just one of those inexplicable things. At the time, they were simply unpredictable and totally miserable.

But my parents refused to accept that they were something which couldn’t be controlled, and if that meant latching on to anecdotal evidence, so be it. At least two times in my early childhood, a rager of a headache (and some attendant vomiting) coincided with eating hot dogs. I remember one of those pretty well because it happened at old Yankee Stadium when my dad took me and Little Bro to a day game in the summer. The sun was blindingly bright overhead, the day was scorching hot, and we were in the Bronx in the early 1980’s so I’m sure the air quality was something like crawling up inside the exhaust pipe of a garbage truck. But when I got sick and we had to leave the game early, clearly the culprit was the hot dog I ate.

Once is an anomaly, twice is a trend, and I’m sure there were more than two similar incidents. Nowadays I know perfectly well that correlation is not causality, and given that I was a little kid who was a picky eater but ate hot dogs all the time, and also that I got headaches all the time, the overlap of hot dog consumption and headaches was not particularly indicative of anything. But my parents convinced themselves that it was a clear cut if-then situation, and hot dogs were taken out of the regular meal rotation.

This kind of unilateral ban might have touched off a series of furious kitchen riots if not for the compromise enacted in the form of switching over to turkey hot dogs. Thus peace was maintained, but man, it wasn’t the same. And of course I kept getting headaches, now and then, but my parents simply maintained that I would have gotten more numerous and more intense headaches if I had been allowed unlimited access to old fashioned beef hot dogs. And so it went for many years.

I reckon just about everyone has moments in their childhood when they yearn for freedom from parental tyranny. When I grow up, I’ll stay up as late as I want! And never take baths! And have ice cream for breakfast! And buy lots of toys! And then of course we eventually see the glimmers of wisdom in the parental fiats that seemed like such unmitigated drags, and we do very little differently even when the opportunity presents itself. As such, you would think that once I got older I came to realize that hot dogs are really pretty much crap food and living without them is no great sacrifice. You’d think that, but you’d be wrong! To this day I love hot dogs and, while I don’t insist on a minimum weekly quota or anything, I do enjoy them more than is probably good for me. I count hot dogs among the top five foods I would miss so much that I can’t see myself ever going completely vegetarian. (Modern technology has yet to come up with a meatless hot dog which is anything less than an abomination.) And I will further admit that even now, decades beyond the age of majority, it feels like a juicy little taste of rebellion whenever I bite into a hot dog. I'm old enough to know better than to subsist on things that are inherently terrible for me, yet the temptation to do so is undeniable. And I buy (some of) the groceries now, and I (sometimes) buy beef frankfurters, and nobody’s gonna stop me. U!S!A!

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Gone by fast (in a good way)

Today my wife and I celebrate our seventh wedding anniversary, and by “celebrate” of course I mean “may attempt to have a half a glass of wine before making every effort to get to bed as early as humanly possible (or as early as our little gaggle of offspring will allow us to).”

I kid. (Kind of.) In all seriousness, developmental milestones are being hit and corners are being turned left and right by each of our children. I mentioned off-handedly last week that the baby has passed three months of age, which truly is a momentous watershed. My wife has often proclaimed that the first three months are the hardest, whereas the three after that are pretty much her favorite, and our most recent addition to the family has been no exception. In the past couple of weeks he has had a few nights here and there during which he slept a good six hours overnight. Of course, calling that a full night’s sleep would entail deeming 4 in the morning as an acceptable time for the night to come to an end; funny how going to bed at midnight and getting up at 6 seems reasonable enough, but going to bed at 10 and being awoken at 4 is a much more brutal happenstance, but there we are. Still, baby steps (literally)! All of the children going to bed at age-appropriate times and snoozing right on through til the sun comes up may not be the way of things right now, but we can see encouraging signs that it’s on its way.

In anticipation of that glorious day (er, night) we will very soon be assembling and installing the little girl’s new toddler bed. She may or may not start sleeping in it straightaway, but we can at least get her used to the idea of it so that when we evict her from the crib to make room for her little brother it’s not a complete shock to her. Then again, given her predilection for mimicking her older brother in every way, and the fact that he sleeps in a bed rather than a crib, she make take to it pretty eagerly. Update to follow!

And speaking of the little guy, the ebb and flow of his disposition between incredibly needy/jealous of his younger siblings/regressing to babyish behavior and responsible/helpful/proud to be the big brother seems to be shifted much more towards the latter recently. It’s not that cut and dry, obviously, and he certainly has his moments, but on balance he’s been really, really good lately about cutting the younger ones some slack, letting them have their way, and just generally being a team player (specifically being on “Team Mommy and Daddy” as opposed to lining up on the other side with “Team Sons (and Daughter) of Anarchy”).

But even when everybody is in a good mood and no one is spoiling for a fight over the timing of a bath or the number of stories to be read before being tucked in, it remains a bit of an exhausting gauntlet to get all three kids settled in for the night, every night. So my wife and I will continue to prize the comfort of our own pillows above much else for the foreseeable future. It’s a happy little family and a happy little life we’ve made for ourselves over the past seven years. By the time we hit the big 10 year mark or so, maybe we’ll have restored our energy reserves enough to properly enjoy it.

(P.S. I am, as is my wont, exaggerating a bit about the Fatigue That Crushes Everything In Its Path. My wife and I did go out last weekend for grown-up conversation over a late lunch of sushi, which was deliciously decadent. We toasted our anniversary a bit early, because it falls mid-week this year and this coming weekend we have a big family visit with more of my relatives finally meeting the baby. So please do not misunderstand and assume that we are failing to stop and smell the roses. Or the roe, as the case may be. We’re doing our best and it’s pretty good, at that.)

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Sitting in judgment (Le Regle du jeu)

Looks like I really am going to kick off SUMMER SCHOOL here with something very much respectable enough for a proper classroom: Jean Renoir’s Le Règle du jeu (or in English, The Rules of the Game). This is one of the 1001 Movies that the Blog Club has not gotten around to yet, and it’s also in the top five of the Sight & Sound 50. I have various little sub-goals within the (impossibly) larger 1001 Movies quest to broaden my cinematic knowledge, and the S&S top five is one of them; now that I’ve seen Le Règle du jeu, as well as Vertigo, Citizen Kane and Tokyo Story, I’ve only got one more to go. Progress!

But, to the film at hand. One of the (many) oddities of the way that my brain works is that I’m frequently imagining ways in which other people’s perceptions might be diametrically opposed to mine. If I’m enjoying something, I’m simultaneously thinking of what obstacles it might present to others’ enjoyment (or vice versa). And then, whenever possible, I’m thinking of counter-arguments of my own and the personal reasons why, for all that I might understand, I don’t necessarily agree. Le Règle du jeu lends itself to that kind of back and forth, which may very well be part of the authorial intent, as well.

I appreciated why Le Règle du jeu is esteemed so highly among cinephiles, and I enjoyed it as entertainment as well. But from a very early point in the story, I could predict what many people might find problematic about it: the absence of appealing characters. First we meet a young pilot who is hailed as a hero for his solo trans-Atlantic flight, but he immediately squanders goodwill with a petulant outburst to a radio reporter, aimed at the woman he loves for her failure to meet him at the landing airfield. Then we cut to the woman in question, and learn that the reason (or one reason) she did not meet the pilot is because she is married to someone else. Then we meet her husband the Marquis, and soon learn he has a mistress, although he is recently resolved to end the affair in order to be worthy of his wife, although he has no intention of being honest with his wife about the past, and also apparently has no remorse about the emotional pain the end of the affair will cause his mistress. And so on and so on, with more and more characters introduced, including the pilot’s best friend (played by Renoir himself) who happens to be a childhood friend of the otherwise-married woman he pines for, and the married woman’s self-interested maid and her brute of a husband and the skeevy poacher whom the Marquis hires as a domestic, and various other upper crust types and servants who all come together for a weekend in the country featuring a hunt and a grand party.

Some people believe that the worth of any story, be it a movie or a novel or even a reality tv series, lives and dies by how sympathetic and/or likable (not always the same thing) the characters are. As the thinking goes, first we must care about the characters, and only then will we care what happens to the characters, which gives us a reason to keep watching or reading so that we can see for ourselves as the narrative unfolds. If characters are completely venal and unlikable, and if their problems are the kinds of troubles most people long to have (too many suitors, too much money and idle time, &c.) and therefore unsympathetic, then the story gives the audience no reason to engage with it, and leads inexorably to “Why am I watching this?” style reactions.

I can’t really argue the point that the characters in Le Règle du jeu have any redeeming qualities, but I found the story compelling nonetheless. It’s fascinating to watch the chain of human misery forged link by link, relationship by relationship, as Renoir introduces all of the players. Then he brings them all together and the story builds momentum, as individuals collide and recombine or rebound from one another at the Marquis’s estate, and the pace never really lets up, until it becomes an out-and-out farce with people running from room to room looking for (or hiding from) other people, including one man actively trying to murder another with a real gun, which most of the other party guests mistake for a droll pantomime amusement being staged for their own benefit.

Another critical question, along the lines of “Do characters have to be likable?”, is “Do satires have to be funny?” Because Le Règle du jeu is fundamentally a satire, albeit a modulated one. There is very little if any exaggeration for comic effect in the film; it simply aims the lens at fictionalized aristocrats and holds their world and worldviews up for well-deserved ridicule. And if something is worthy of being ridiculed, it may not be particularly appealing to begin with. It also may or may not be humorous, and may instead be pathetic or sorrowful (which is in fact how I would describe the closing section of the movie, after the high-energy farce has spent itself and finished winding down like one of the Marquis’s mechanical music boxes).

Likability isn’t the point and laughs aren’t the point, either, if I may be so bold as to speak for Monsieur Renoir. The point is a critique and an indictment, framed in such a way as to invite the audience to come to their own conclusions. There is little to no comeuppance for any of the characters in Le Règle du jeu (with the exception of the pilot’s tragic death), and they are not punished for their transgressions, unless you take the view that simply living with themselves and each other is punishment enough. The lack of stern moralizing in the film probably contributed greatly to the outrage which initially greeted it as well as its being banned shortly after its release; no one was willing to acknowledge that the rich and powerful were so immoral and immune from consequences as Renoir plainly demonstrates.

From my perspective, almost seventy-five years later and with no personal identification with the culture being scrutinized, it’s easy to take the satire at face value and take no offense. But that would be missing the point, as well. Very few of the flaws and shortcomings of human nature are confined to a specific moment in time or a specific subset of people. Mockery usually reaches further than that. If I think about it, I know I’ve been guilty of obsessing over my first-world problems, of being reckless with other people’s feelings, and a long litany of other transgressions. But I’d rather be reminded of that, and make yet another effort to at least try to be a better person, than to shun the reminder and pretend everything is fine. I may not like it, but I know I need it.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Not so different

I didn’t watch the premiere of the Under the Dome television series last night, and I probably never will, unless there is a sudden outpouring of praise for and devotion to the show as it goes along. I’ve read the book, and I know how it ends, and I think the experience of going through that storyline a second time awaiting the inevitable would be less pleasant than, say, enjoying the general faithfulness (and interesting creative liberties) of something like Game of Thrones.

But obviously I’m aware of Under the Dome as a summer tv event. And I noticed a strange thread in some of the coverage of it: a sharp contrast drawn between Stephen King, who wrote the source novel, and Steven Spielberg, who is the executive producer. Much has been made of what strange bedfellows the pair of Steves must be, but I have to admit that thought would never have occurred to me. They’re both prodigious storytellers, and if anything it’s noteworthy that they haven’t really worked together before this, as a sheer numbers game proposition. (This is further based on the premise that the author of a novel upon which a miniseries is based has any interaction at all with an executive producer of said miniseries, in any fashion which could meaningfully be termed collaboration, but let’s just roll with it for now.)

Apparently, in the mass consciousness of the public, King and Spielberg get pigeonholed in different ways. It’s “horror writer Stephen King” and it’s “Oscar-winner Steven Spielberg”. When people think about Stephen King, they visualize Sissy Spacek drenched in pig’s blood or Jack Nicholson lurching around with an axe; maybe if their familiarity extends beyond the Hollywood version of King, they imagine their own version of Pennywise the Clown or the Walking Dude. Ask them to think about Steven Spielberg, on the other hand, and the mental images include cuddly little E.T. or dashing Indiana Jones (if they tend to gravitate towards the popcorn-movie fare) or Tom Hanks as Captain Miller in Saving Private Ryan or Daniel Day Lewis as/in Lincoln (if the awards-bait is more their thing). Spielberg makes heartwarming and/or artistically heartfelt films; King is a purveyor of nightmare-inducing schlock.

Except, you know, not really. The Shawshank Redemption is based very closely on a Stephen King novella. So is Stand By Me, which feels like an archetypical Spielbergian coming of age story. So is the classic Arnold Schwarzenegger cheese-fest The Running Man, which granted is a much looser adaptation, but both the novel and the movie are non-horrific science fiction. Yes, King became famous for his early works of horror like Carrie and The Shining, and for my money some of his all-time bests are similarly scary, whether it be the supernatural terror of Pet Sematary or the psychological twistedness of Misery, but he has roamed all over the genre map, from sci-fi to fantasy, weird west, domestic drama, and some stuff that defies categorization. (I always have a hard time figuring out what shelf The Dead Zone goes on, which is far from a knock on the book itself.)

And Spielberg has also been responsible for lots and lots of different works in different genres, not least of which is, if not exactly horror, then movies with genuine scares in them. Jurassic Park has its moments of sheer velociraptor-induced terror. Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom is one of the movies credited (as the legends go) with the invention of the PG-13 rating for its frightening and disturbing imagery. And let us not forget Jaws! How many people in 1975 claimed to be afraid to go swimming in the ocean as a direct result of watching Jaws? How many people to this day claim something along those lines? How often do you hear someone humming John Williams’s shark theme to convey the sense of lurking, approaching menace?

I think to a certain extent this all arises out of a general misunderstanding of what the horror genre is all about, an assumption that it’s mainly about victimhood, about telling stories about people who suffer and forcing the audience to suffer along with them. Which, OK, yeah, it is a lot about that. But I think people who avoid horror as a rule tend to think of the victimhood and suffering along the lines of a latter installment in a slasher movie franchise, where root-for-the-maniac fandom has taken hold and the narrative is a crude delivery system for gory violence and the rapid-fire demise of disposable characters. And again, it’s not that stories like that don’t exist or are even all that rare, it’s just that they’re not the be-all and end-all of horror. And as far as Stephen King is concerned, very few of his works could be described as identifying with the bad guy and mercilessly picking off the nominal protagonists. Not every one of his stories have happy endings, but they’re not sadistic torture-porn, either. (Well, not all. Under the Dome kind of is, just to bring things full circle here.)

King doesn’t set out to satisfy any particular antisocial bloodlusts, he tells stories with memorable and sympathetic heroes. And he pits them against intimidating forces of opposition, but isn’t that true of any good, engaging story? If the thought of being taken hostage by heavily-armed, cold-blooded terrorists is a nightmarish one, why isn’t Die Hard a horror movie? Is it just a question of degrees, of the extent to which an author focuses our attention on how terrifying the evil characters are, or the extent to which they suppress our ability to believe the hero can ultimately overcome that evil? Or is it really just a question of marketing, where if we’re told something is filed under horror it unnerves us and we jump at every shadow, whereas if we’re told something is family fun adventure then we perceive any and all threats to safety as par for the course for the hero’s journey?

I don’t know the answer, honestly, but I think it bears some thinking about. But I do know that Mssrs. King and Spielberg both are master storytellers, and both enjoy pushing far outside of the safe zones, and I for one am glad to live in a world with both of them doing their not-so-dissimilar thing.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Different ways to say "no change"

The was some incremental, yet almost imperceptible, progress on my big work project last week. As of today I have about a week and a half to get everything done, but still can’t quite get started as I am waiting for permission to proceed to make its way through various official channels. The good news (using a very generous definition of “good”) is that my contracting bosses have just very matter-of-factly started putting fallback position plans in place to deal with the fact that they don’t expect me to hit the deadline at this point, and it doesn’t seem like I’m going to bear the brunt of the negative fallout. It’s just more or less understood that the machinery moves slowly and I am standing by to leap into action when the gears spit out what I need.

But life in the office continues to go on all around me, and we are currently in the midst of a number of retirements. (A slack of retirements? A sunset of retirements? A senescence? Not sure of the collective noun here.) A week or two ago a gentleman whom I knew on sight but never had any professional interaction with retired, and around the end of this month a woman with whom I’ve worked often is retiring. I was working with her on getting some special-order software for my big project, actually, and thankfully that got resolved last week, as opposed to getting lost in limbo if it had been an unfinished bit of business at the time that she made her exit. I’ll be attending a luncheon in her honor tomorrow, and I’ll be duly grateful that she was so willing to put in the effort to see things through to their conclusion even in her last weeks at the agency.

And yet another one of my colleagues, a fellow employee of my contracting company and the woman from whom I took over many day-to-day duties when I came aboard, is retiring due to health issues … some time. Soon, probably, but she does not yet have a date set for her last day. She has been transitioning more of her duties lately, officially to someone other than me but I have a feeling that I will end up being expected to handle some or all of what is inevitably forgotten in the official transition.

At any rate, all of these departures are somewhat of a piece with what I was prattling on about yesterday, and how the beginning of summer always feels like an appropriate time for transitions, for the endings of things, how even though I now work year-round and have done so for basically the past sixteen years (give or take a spate of unemployment now and then) I feel the urge to do things differently come late June or July, even if only in very superficial ways. But it occurs to me now that June will be an optimal time to retire (thirty-odd years from now or whenever I can feasibly afford to do so), to greet my golden years as one big long summer vacation. Which would also, I suppose, require moving somewhere perennially warm like Hawaii, but that’s not exactly an argument against the notion.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

SUNDAY SPECIAL: School’s (never really) Out

I never did put forth a theme for blogging in the month of June, did I? And here the month has all but flown by. The season of summer, on the other hand, is newly upon us, and I feel no qualms whatsoever about leaving the entire notion of theme months off (for now) and declaring this the beginning of SUMMER SCHOOL!

It may seem perverse to get excited about a concept as inherently fraught with regret and/or punishment as summer school, and admittedly I have no first-hand experience with the actual institution. Public school came easy to me, so I never had to face the prospect of either forfeiting summer vacation or repeating a grade. College is a different proposition, where coursework between May and August represents not so much academic atonement with the end goal of not falling further behind, but rather a chance to get ahead, to take on extra opportunities (or at the very least to spend more time living in quasi-autonomy in a dorm rather than back home at one’s parents’ house). But I never opted for a summer study program in my years of higher learning, either.

However, my laid back approach to college should not be interpreted as any kind of dislike for the scholarly life. I enjoyed college, just as I enjoyed grade school and high school when I was a kid, and whether or not I volunteered to spend the longest days of the year in a classroom is beside the point. What I appreciate now, much more because it’s all over, is the structure and legitimacy that school lent to my pursuits. Sitting around and reading a book just for the fun of it makes me feel a bit guilty for wasting time, even though I never felt that way when the exact same activity was assigned homework or a requirement for a degree.

To a certain extent, my approach to this blog has been heavily influenced by my schooling experiences. Sure, sometimes I just babble about what’s been going on in my life and how I feel about it, but when I dig into a movie or tv show or comic or something I’m applying the same analysis and writing skills that earned me my BA. I’m even more indebted to my undergrad days when I approach two disparate works and treat them like entries on the same syllabus, as if I’m taking a final and have to compose an essay on the thematic connections between Billy Wilder and Akiyuki Nosaka. Putting any advance thought into how things might be organized and grouped, as I’ve done in the earlier theme months, is just more of the same. I judge myself with a healthy amount of “What are you doing?” more often than not, and it’s nice sometimes to have an answer: I’m studying, I’m learning, and those things have been important all my life and always will be.

And that includes summers! I no longer live my life according to semesters or school years, but I can sense their well-worn patterns in my brain all the same. In the past I’ve celebrated the season with Beach Books on a Bus or Summer Movies on a Train, and you should fully expect me to make references to both of those throughout the next twelve weeks or so. But I also expect to read some serious volumes and, of course, keep up in my usual semi-regular way with the 1001 Movies Blog Club, which should balance out the genre trash a bit. (Or, better yet, find ways to combine the the lightweight and the substantial.) Plus, there’s all the things I’ve failed to deliver as promised throughout the year so far, which would be the most summer-school-inspired topics to revisit in June, July and August. A sampling of some things which you can look forward to my thoughts on (with glee or dread, depending):

- Green Lantern Sleepers Volume 3!
- American lit from the Roaring 20’s!
- The book every other geek was reading back in the fall/winter, Marvel Comics: The Untold Story!
- A whole stack of comics I’ve been saving for summer!
- The long-delayed mega-post about Community Season Four!
- Possibly the revival of the Buffy Re-Watch Project, in light of the overdue conclusion of my fantasy re-reads!
- Probably another volume of Akira and maybe some Studio Ghibli anime films!
- And Much Much More, Maybe! (Though obviously I have a problem with over-promising and under-delivering, or we wouldn’t even be here having this conversation, would we?)

At any rate, the important thing to remember is that as I gorge on comic collections and mindless movies over the next couple months, it’s not slackery. It’s SUMMER SCHOOL!

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Saturday Grab Bag of Follow-ups

You’d think Monday’s post would have gotten it well and truly out of my system, but it took a great deal of willpower not to post another long screed inveighing against the Man of Steel movie on Tuesday of this week, that’s how much my cultural-custodial sensibilities were put out of joint by it. What finally brought me down off the ledge was a video that has been on YouTube for a while, which all of my friends had seen, and I had kept putting off and putting off. It’s John Landis’s son, Max, simply describing the completely insaneballs Death and Return of Superman, which was a gaudy (and, in retrospect, senseless) comics mega-event in the 90’s. And by ‘simply describing” I mean “ranting with equal parts affection and disgust, and lots of F-bombs”. Also, Max got some of his famous friends, including Mandy Moore and Elijah Wood, to re-enact some of the scenes from the storyline as he related them. It’s very funny (especially if you are familiar with the source material, which of course I am) and a good reminder that maybe I shouldn’t take things so seriously. Stupid high-profile Superman stories happen sometimes. This too shall pass.

If you’re curious, here’s the video:

Max Landis directed (EDIT: nope, co-wrote) the movie Chronicle, by the by, which has been on my to-watch list for a while, but has now been bumped up quite a bit.


I recently bought myself a couple of action figures for my Green Lantern collection, which were discovered even before they were unboxed by the little guy. He badgered me into opening them (which I was going to do anyway, since I don’t obsessively keep my toys in mint-in-box condition. Not all of them, at any rate.) and then proceeded to play with them for most of this past weekend. And he did at one point ask me when (not if) I was going to get some more “Green Lantern bad guys”. Just another minor data point on the trend line for him coming around on thinking conflict-free stories are the only ones he can get into.


Also, speaking of life with the little guy, my wife and I are unspeakably relieved that the solstice has come and gone, because we were getting a little tired of constantly being corrected every time we mentioned an aspect of the weather or something being an aspect of summer. “Guys, it’s not summer,” the little guy would pipe up, “it’s late spring.” Well, it’s summer now, boyo, so there. And truth be told, it’s the first summer we’ve ever had to deal with the little guy actually noticing that it’s still pretty darn light outside when we’re asking him to get ready for bed and turn the lights out. So we’ve got enough to manage as it is, and at least now we can say, “That’s just the way it works in the summer, now go to sleep!” and not launch an argument about seasonal start dates.


And in other start-date news, the local brewpub did in fact open as scheduled. I have to drive past the parking lot of the strip mall every evening on my way home from the train station, and this Wednesday I saw the tent out in front of the taproom and a long line of patrons stretching all the way down the sidewalk. On the one hand, I’m pleased that the grand opening was a big successful event, and on the other hand, I wound up glad that I didn’t really have my heart set on dragging the kids to said event. I could have, possibly, justified walking from our house to the strip mall, sauntering into the brewpub, introducing myself as from the neighborhood, maybe trying a sample and wishing them luck, then taking the kids to get dinner, if it had all taken a half-hour tops. But I never could have rationalized walking the kids over there to stand in line for a half-hour. So just as well I took a pass.

Plus, my wife and I are going out to lunch today as an early anniversary celebration, and we’re planning on stopping by the taproom after we eat. So I’ll at least get an opening week experience. If anything particularly noteworthy happens (beyond “good beer”, which should always be duly noted) I will report on it after the fact.


I am in the midst of a game of entertainment consumption chicken with myself at the moment. I am just about halfway through my re-read of the fourth A Song of Ice and Fire volume, which was as far as I got in acquiring the books during my first go-round with the saga. To be fair, only four books had been published back then, and although the fifth book has since been released (and the sixth one, I understand, should be out some time next year) I wanted a matched set for my shelves, which meant waiting for A Dance With Dragons to come out in airport paperback sized edition. But in the mean time HBO’s Game of Thrones started and the series saw a huge surge in popularity and I have yet to see a cheap paperback version of book five anywhere, since people are all too willing to shell out for the hardcover. So I’ve resigned myself to getting the Kindle edition of the last three books in order to stay ahead of spoilers in the cultural conversation, and then when (or if) the chunky paperbacks ever come out I’ll just suck it up and get those too to satisfy my completist OCD. So the only question now is when to download Dance With Dragons. Part of me wants to do it immediately, and part of me knows that since the electronic transaction is instantaneous there’s no reason not to wait until I actually finish the back half of book four.

Very similarly, I’m a little more than halfway through my DVD set of Smallville Season 9, which is the penultimate season. One excellent benefit of the combination of technology’s march and my aforementioned completist OCD is that because I started collecting seasons of Smallville on DVD, that is how I’m going to finish it. And DVDs are incredibly cheap now because everybody wants everything on Blu-ray. Seriously, Amazon has Smallville Season 10 for like 75% off retail list. So, again, order it immediately? Or wait until I’m actually closer to starting to watch the final season?

Part of the reason I’m staring down this big two-headed chicken, I think, is because I’ve been working on the re-read project since last year, starting with the Kingkiller Chronicles and Dark Tower books and now I’m finally within sight of being totally done with it. And I’ve been committed to Smallville for over a decade, admittedly lagging behind quite a bit, but that finish line is coming into view as well. And I’m not ambivalent about crossing those finish lines, either. I will be very happy to have accomplished what I set out to do, and happier still to have the freedom to read some new books and get into some new tv shows and whatnot. If anything, I’m reluctant to give in to the impulse to obtain that last book or last DVD set because I think it’s probably an over-eager impulse, driven not be imminent need but more by wishfully wanting to be that much closer to being able to check things off my list. So, I’m reining it in. For now. But we’ll see how long that lasts.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Music Man

I was in the high school bands (marching and concert) for longer than I was technically in high school, since the music department tended to recruit instrument-playing eighth graders before they finished middle school, at the very least to induce them to come to band camp in August and be ready to march and play as of the very first football game pep rally the first week of the school year. Over the course of four years I had three different band teachers, one for the first two years and two more for a year apiece. The band teacher my senior year was a decent enough guy, and a really amazing musician, but what dominates my memories of him is the really strange dynamic that developed over the course of the year between him and the students, particularly me and my fellow seniors. Not only were we as naturally cocky as you would expect seventeen and eighteen year olds to be, but we legitimately did know more about how the school and the town operated than this well-intentioned newcomer, and we were not the least bit shy about flaunting that. It wasn’t that we didn’t like the teacher, we just found the power imbalance irresistible to mess around with, and as I said, in retrospect it just seems weirdly off.

Now, the teacher my junior year, on the other hand, I couldn’t stand, and I wasn’t alone in that opinion, either. He was insufferably pretentious and rubbed me every which wrong way. But no small factor in getting us off on the wrong foot was the fact that he was replacing my original high school band teacher, Lester, whom I absolutely loved.

Lester was not his real name, but it was an affectionate nickname that had already been bestowed on him by the time I got there (his first year teaching was my eighth grade year). Band (the marching band in particular) was really its own little subculture in my high school and the regular rules of the system were generally suspended, so being on a quasi-first name basis with an authority figure was just the way things went. I’m realizing now that today I am probably older than Lester was when I knew him, but of course at the time he was a grown-up, just a little younger than my parents, and I was a kid. But being in band with Lester as the director felt more like collaboration than anything else, and we all put in tons of extra time nights and weekends and whenever we could, so it felt like we were almost equals. Or possibly that Lester was a very cool uncle, although he generally acted like a big kid. He was funny and irreverent, didn’t take too many things too seriously, he liked the same kinds of music as me and my peers (and the same kinds of movies, too). He was definitely a touch on the dorky side, but so is just about everyone in high school band, so within that specific spectrum he was definitely on the cool end.

And as a marching band director specifically, he was fantastic. He arranged all the music we played himself, specifically addressing the strengths and weaknesses of our particular group of young instrumentalists, while also giving everything some kind of jazz or rock-inflected upgrade. One year the theme of our halftime show was sports and included the Wide World of Sports fanfare, a Beach Boys medley for surfing, and Take Me Out to the Ballgame (with an added motif from Here Come the Yankees - did I mention Lester was also a Yankees fan?); the next year the theme was The Beatles and riffed on Sgt. pepper’s and Yellow Submarine. At the last football game of each season, which was played on Thanksgiving, we would add some bonus Christmas content which we called “Funky Santa” (a backbeat-heavy version of Santa Claus Is Comin To Town featuring the horn line as dancing elves). Lester let us have a lot of fun but also made us sound really good.

So of course, it couldn’t last. In one of those incredibly petty small town power plays that arise every day, Lester’s contract with the high school was not renewed after his third year, primarily because he was becoming romantically involved with the divorced mother of one of the students in the band. Not that the community at large thought this was scandalously inappropriate or anything, but that student’s father, the ex-husband, was on the school board, and so he made sure the band director got canned to spite his ex-wife and her new boyfriend. Seriously.

It’s possible that Lester saw the writing on the wall well ahead of time, and his good-natured, easy-going spirit allowed him to take it in stride, and for that matter to enjoy a certain amount of freedom knowing that his fate was sealed no matter what. I can remember one weekend my sophomore year doing something band-related and then hanging around long after the official activity was over, something which happened pretty regularly. My high school girlfriend and I had met through marching band and we would often delay leaving any given rehearsal or whatnot just to spend time together. So this one time we were following that script and Lester and the mom he was dating (who was there volunteering as a color guard instructor) asked me and my girlfriend if we wanted to go grab a bite to eat. And they took us to a local bar, which I suppose was technically a bar and grill since they didn’t object to two 15 year olds coming through the door on a Saturday afternoon, but as far as I was concerned at that young and innocent age it was mainly a bar. Lester and my girlfriend ended up talking a lot of trash to each other about baseball. Raised in L.A., she was a genuine Dodgers fan, and this was 1989 or 1990, which meant not only had the Dodgers won the World Series only a year or so before, but the time they won before that, beating the Yankees in 1981, was the last time the Yankees had even made it to the World Series at all. Dark days in the Bronx, those ‘80’s, and a time I’m ashamed to admit my own Yankees fandom was at a low ebb, so I didn’t comment on the conversation much. Mostly, though, I was just in awe of the fact that I was in a bar, and kind of on a double date, with a couple of adults who I thought were pretty cool. It made me a feel a little grown up, but even more importantly for the way I thought at the time, it gave that relationship between me and my girlfriend some legitimacy, which I was forever and always desperately craving. (And rarely getting, and rightly so, because we were just a couple of dumb kids who were really way too serious about each other for our age and respective life experiences, but so went that chapter of my life.)

In hindsight, being a high school teacher and spontaneously taking a couple of high school kids out to a bar (I’m positive Lester didn’t buy us drinks or anything, but I’m also pretty sure he had a beer or two himself) seems absolutely insane to me, the kind of thing parents would run a body out of town on a rail for today. But I know Lester’s heart was in the right place, and it had nothing to do with giving his blessing to a couple of teenagers making moon eyes at each other. My high school girlfriend never knew her father, and was raised by a single mom who was not exactly the most stable provider or healthiest influence imaginable. I think Lester took being a positive male role model for her fairly seriously, somewhere deep down under the jokes and the Tommy Lasorda insults. He didn’t want to adopt her or anything, but he wasn’t averse to demonstrating from time to time that she wasn’t completely alone in a world where no adult gave a crap about her. After all, what were they going to do, fire him from teaching for being too nice?

OK, so we live in a world where that actually can happen to anyone (and did happen to Lester). So far I haven’t really run into any situations in my adult life where I’ve crossed someone more powerful than me and had to choose between my personal and professional success, following my heart or falling in line. And now that I have a wife and three kids to provide for (none of which applied to Lester) I’d almost certainly choose whatever kept a roof over our heads. Still, at least I would know I had a choice, and rather than unthinkingly capitulating I’d have to force myself to really reckon with what I was doing. Of all the lessons I took out of adolescence, that one’s probably worth holding on to.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

All the little beasts

The thing about Disney, or at least the part of that corporate behemoth which is essentially synonymous with the production of fairy-tale adaptations, is that they take these classic stories and invest them with authentic emotion. People like to talk about how cruel and bloody the original source material is, but I think that’s only half right. Bloody, no question, but not particularly cruel, not particularly anything on the emotional spectrum. What’s been handed down to us is primarily the plots and the lessons they were intended to impart on children, and anything that truly fleshes out how the characters feel is an adaptation. Disney happens to be particularly good at this.

I was thinking about this recently because the little guy finally saw Beauty and the Beast, the “finally” part referring to the fact that a couple weeks ago my wife and I tried to make it his Saturday Night Movie and only got about as far as the part where Belle’s father starts to get lost in the dark scary woods before the little guy was on the verge of tears, telling us he didn’t like how scary it was and could we please watch Toy Story instead? We acquiesced, of course, but we told him if he wanted to give it another try some other time, he could. (This is not so much due to my desire to give my children as broad a base of pop culture knowledge as possible, although I won’t deny the thought has occurred to me. But more importantly, if the only two movies the little guy ever wants to watch are Toy Story and Cars, we’re going to go a bit mental.)

So, of his own volition, the little guy came back later and said he wanted to try Beauty and the Beast again. I asked him if he was sure, and he informed me that now that he knew that the Beast turns into a nice guy at the end (we had had several conversations about the movie in the interim, and spoilers be damned, I was really trying to hip him to the whole concept of happy endings in Disney movies) he wouldn’t be scared. And I took him at his word.

But Beast starting out mean and ending up nice is, again, merely plot. There are a fair number of scary elements in Beauty and the Beast which are not Beast-centric (the wolves! the creepy spider-y horseless carriage! the cadaverous director of the insane asylum!) but those aren’t even the things which cause the little guy mental distress. It’s the emotional button-pushing, as it turns out. When we got to the sequence where Belle, against Beast’s explicit instructions, enters the west wing of the castle, the mounting tension proved absolutely excruciating for the little guy. I don’t know if he was processing the fact of Belle’s transgression, or just responding to all the aesthetic effects of the score and the sound effects and the color palette, but he freaked out and ran out of the room. So I skipped ahead to the next scene (bypassing Beast discovering Belle, frightening her, her attempted escape only to run into the aforementioned wolves, and Beast’s rescue of her) where Belle is tending to Beast’s wounds and thanking him. And somehow I got the little guy back onto the couch, and then all was well because we were into the whole falling-in-love second act of things.

We almost didn’t make it to the end because the little guy also was not a big fan of Gaston rousing the mob to storm Beast’s castle. Just the escalating threat of violence (and/or murder, let’s not sugarcoat it here) was again enough to bury the emotional needle in the red. I’ll remind you that the scene in question is actually a musical number, which you might think would therefore inherently defuse things with its silliness, but that doesn’t necessarily follow when you’re four. If anything, the minor key and the dun-dun-DUN, dun-dun-DUN beat just tap right into your tiny little amygdalae. So there were some tears, but I urged him to hang in there because we were almost at the end and everything was going to be all right. And bless his little heart, he did.

So I feel like we’ve crossed a certain threshold, in terms of entertainments that the little guy can tolerate. Cars and Toy Story don’t really have archetypal villains; Chick Hicks is the nominal antagonist, but he’s mostly just a selfish jerk, and you could say the same thing about Andy’s toy-destroying neighbor Sid, too. Pixar movies are a little more nuanced and a little more grounded and that makes them a bit gentler, too. Gaston’s pretty straight-up evil, though, and he gets the standard comeuppance of falling to his death. If a child can wrap their head around the fact that evil is out there but that good can triumph over it, then (I think?) that opens the floodgates for pretty much all the fairy-tale derived stories out there, which are the ones I tend to gravitate towards. Not saying the little guy’s quite ready for a full-on Star Wars marathon quite yet, but we could try The Little Mermaid or Aladdin or something. Though of course the next Saturday Night Movie request he’s made is a re-watch of Toy Story 2. So, fair enough.

For what it’s worth, I don’t know if I’ll wind up going through this same process of acclimation with the little girl. I tend to think not. Temperamentally, she comes across as a little more fierce and a little less sensitive than her big brother, although that’s a real chicken-and-egg question, since he may have been the one who’s been toughening her up all along as her number one playmate and role model, and he may simply have unleashed something far beyond his intentions. In any case, the other day she and I were sitting across the table from each other after dinner, and some minor annoyance caused her to say “Shoot.” (My wife and I are not perfect parents, but give us credit for this: we love profanity but we have tried mightily to curb our use of it in front of our children, whom we love more. We say “shoot” a lot in place of more colorful expletives of frustration. Or “shhhhhhhhhhoot” which gives you a sense of how first one word starts to come out of our mouths and we manage to steer it someplace else.) I hadn’t noticed whatever had set the little girl off, so I asked her, “Shoot what?” And she gave me her most devilish little smile and answered, “Bad guys.” It actually took me a second to realize what she was saying, but I recovered and said, “Oh, right, shoot bad guys!” I’m not entirely sure if I should be encouraging the violence-is-the-hero’s-solution paradigm at such a young age, but let’s leave that be for the moment. It’s still cute to hear her say it.

And in the baby’s case, obviously I don’t have quite as good a read on things. So far all that my wife and I have agreed to be hopeful about is that the baby might be more laid back than either of his siblings. The little guy is intense yet fragile, and the little girl is intense and indestructible, so we’re just kind of crossing our fingers for not-so-intense. Intensity of course is not always a bad thing, as one can be intensely happy or intensely focused or intensely earnest or whatever, and certainly our kids have demonstrated all of those states at one time or another. But it’s exhausting, so we’d really truly be fine with less of that all around. The baby is a happy little dude, especially now that he’s got three full months (and counting) of outside-the-womb experience under his diaper flaps. He smiles a lot, and laughs and babbles and coos, which already sets him apart from his brother and sister, who both tended to range from crying to quietly observing and that was about it. Again, there are chickens and eggs to account for here, since a house with a four (nearly five) year old and a two year old in it is always on the noisy side and an infant might understandably want to take a stab, early and often, at his own vocalizations to alert the world to his own existence. Presumably he wants to make sure no one fails to hear him and his opinions someday when it’s his turn to pick the feature for the Saturday Night Movie.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Critique as memoir (Children of Men)

Fun fact! (Note: not actually all that fun) It took almost exactly a year for my wife and I to conceive our first child, coinciding dang near perfectly with the calendar year 2007, and it was not a year which gradually evolved from "let's just be neutral and see how nature takes its course" to "hopeful yet impatient". It was a year that started with "we are GOING TO DO THIS" and (maybe too) quickly became frustrating, discouraging and demoralizing. Obviously everything turned out fine, but it was an emotionally bumpy road.

By somewhere in the middle of 2007, Children of Men had gone through its U.S. theatrical run and been released on DVD, and one day my wife and I were sitting in the living room watching tv and a commercial for the film came on. I very offhandedly mentioned that I kind of wanted to see it, which immediately earned me a (well-deserved) hostile sidelong glance from my wife, who simply said (and I may be paraphrasing here), "A movie about a world where no one can have a baby? Are you %@$#ing kidding me?"

So after that I did not exactly run out to rent it. And then time went by, and our (relatively brief, drop-in-the-bucket compared to what some couples go through) experience with infertility ended as my wife became and remained pregnant (though that was no walk in the park, either). And we got to be parents, and knew we wanted another child, and that took some doing but eventually we made that happen too, and now we have three happy healthy little children and a movie like Children of Men now seems at least as benign as any other imaginary, allegorical story. In the meantime its reputation, as well as that of its director Alfonso Cuaron, has stayed strong, among other things meriting inclusion in 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die, so the other week I finally made a point of checking it out for myself.

I find it all but impossible to render an objective assessment of the flick at this point, though. I liked it a lot, on numerous levels: cinematically, there's the rightly lauded impossibly long takes in various scenes; philosophically, there's the provocative questions raised by the premise and the message embedded in the narrative (or at any rate the message I took from it, but more on that below); for the geek in me, there's an amazing feat of world-building in portraying dystopian, verge-of-collapse Britain circa 2027; for anyone who adores Michael Caine (myself included), there's Michael Caine as the stoner hippie wise fool. Even the soundtrack is brilliant (or soundtracks, since there's an original score as well as a lot of well-deployed rock standards, and the descriptor applies to both).

I've mentioned probably a half a dozen times here on the blog how becoming a parent means that Everything Is Different Now (here's the first time I explained it, scroll down near the end) and the experience of watching a movie like Children of Men is no different. To explain the plot of the film in broadest terms, humanity has become a barren race and everyone is doing an end-of-days freakout. The main character, Theo, winds up tasked with helping a young woman, Kee, get out of the country, because she is pregnant and might give birth to the first baby in the world in 18 years. Kee is a refugee from Africa and if the baby is born in Britain the shady government will no doubt seize the child for nefarious ends, whereas if Theo can get Kee to the independent Human Project the baby and mother will be in benevolent hands and might help cure mankind's infertility. Unfortunately the path to the Human Project leads through a refugee interment camp which also ends up being the site of the first battle in a violent uprising of the oppressed against the government, and both sides want the baby in order to control what it symbolizes. So Theo and Kee end up in a warzone with gunfire on all sides and tanks blowing up buildings and so on, and the moment of truth comes when they are trapped in a building full of revolutionaries and surrounded by soldiers, and Theo decides to just stand up and walk out with Kee and her baby (who was born the night before) in full view. And everyone on all sides simply stops fighting and lets them pass and stares in awe at the baby. The spontaneous ceasefire lasts just long enough for Theo and Kee to get clear, and then a revolutionary takes a shot at a soldier and the violence erupts again, but by then Theo and Kee and the baby are on their way to their rendezvous with the Human Project.

I reckon there are two different valid reactions to the span during which all the fighters temporarily lay down their arms and recognize the newborn for the miracle that it is. One would be that it is incredibly convenient for the plot and insanely unrealistic as a reflection of human psychology and ideology. The other would be to regard it as the most logical, natural thing in the world. Obviously I fall into the latter camp. The concept of a "last baby on Earth" is a sci-fi curiosity, but really all babies are precious, aren't they? All babies have the capacity to stop people in their tracks, to tilt the world on its axis and bring sudden, searing clarity to what's really important in life. Even before Theo decides to gamble everything on his grand gesture (and perhaps this is the turning point that inspires him to try it), he comes face-to-face again with Luke, the leader of the revolutionaries who had previously expressed no qualms about keeping the pregnant Kee prisoner to his own agenda, and who even abducted Kee in the firefight earlier. Pinned down by the incoming military attacks, Luke confesses to Theo that he was walking Kee and the baby through the camp but when he looked at the baby he started crying. "I had forgotten what they looked like," he laments, heart-breakingly. "I had forgotten how beautiful they are." All the credit in the world to Chiwetel Ejiofor for selling the hell out of those lines, but that was the moment that moved me the most (just sitting here days later typing it up has choked me up a bit).

But of course I would think all that and feel that way, because I've been overwhelmed by that feeling myself in a very personal way. I've seen the (arguably subjective) perfection of grace in a sleeping newborn's face and I've felt the nearness of tomorrows I'll never see when I've held my sons or my daughter in my arms. And I've had my own fleeting taste of the senseless, hellish pain of longing for a child, and thankfully the joy of having that longing satisfied. These things speak to me, profoundly. Would they have six years ago? If these themes are universal to anyone who's ever been a parent, does that make them universal enough?

I'll go out on a limb and assume that it does, that they are fundamentally common to the human experience. We're talking about faith, hope and love here, after all. If you can't recognize or relate to those precepts in any way, you might want to rethink your life choices somewhat. I have no choice in the matter, myself; such are the transformative powers of my little brood of three. And so I can't help but feel that ultimately Children of Men is an optimistic movie for recognizing that even at our darkest hour we have the ability to generate something pure and true that may outlive us, and that even if we fail to reach what we set off towards, we can at least give the next generation a head start to keep trying. And there always will be a next generation, as sure as there will always be a tomorrow. It's a tiny bit ham-handed, but the ship the Human Project sends to rescue Theo and Kee is called the Tomorrow, and when Theo and Kee are in a rowboat out at sea and surrounded by fog, it seems like the Tomorrow will never come. Until it inevitably does. Faith and hope for tomorrow, and love for our children today, if that's not what life is supposed to be about then I surely don't know.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Mutual understanding

In the ongoing friendly rivalry which plays out between my wife and myself via the Baltimore Orioles and the New York Yankees, things have reached a strange kind of equilibrium. Yesterday we watched parts of the O’s-Tigers game, until things really started to go downhill for my wife’s team, at which point she allowed herself a slightly dejected “It’s over” as she changed the channel. That’s historically been her stock phrase for assessing the O’s season as a whole, but it has evolved over the years that we’ve been together, from dismissing the Orioles’ chances of having a .500 record by the end of the year, to lamenting their mathematically unlikely path to the playoffs, to the point we’re at now where I’m pretty sure last night she was only referring to that particular game, as opposed to the season as a whole, being over. I think she’s got some faith that the O’s can hang in there down the stretch.

Certainly it’s merited at the moment, since her team is in second place in the East, and within striking distance of first (not to mention a game ahead of my boys from the Bronx). Which may or may not have anything to do with the magnanimity she demonstrated in noting with some surprise and even a hint of disappointment that the All-Star break is fast approaching and it doesn’t seem like we’ve watched any Yankees games so far. She’s not wrong, though I attribute that to a combination of factors (primarily our new baby and concurrent lack of desire to stay up for a Sunday night game on ESPN) which, oddly, doesn’t necessarily include not being able to bear the thought of going at each other’s throats if one squad whups on the other. We’re both still rooting for our respective teams, and to a certain extent having them both in the same division makes it a zero-sum game where one can only succeed at the other’s expense, but we’re finding our way toward graciousness about it, I suppose. To the point that when, as if in answer to my wife’s musings, the O’s broadcast mentioned that the next BAL-NYY series would begin a week from this coming Friday, that was welcome news of something to look forward to.

Of course, if one (or more) of those games should end up as a lopsided blowout, no doubt imprecations will be muttered and channels will be changed. Possibly rooms will be dramatically exited. I’m still not sure we’re ready for a live game at Camden Yards when the Yanks are in town, with no escape hatch if things get ugly. We have been talking about catching an Orioles game, next season of course, when the baby’s no longer a baby and is old enough to be left with the grandparents overnight so that we can make a whole grown-up excursion of it. I love baseball enough that I would literally go to a stadium to watch anybody play anybody, and I’ll be perfectly happy to watch the O’s take on, say, the Astros just for the ballpark experience. Plus I have yet to check out the Natty Boh Bar and that is just a gross oversight.

Once we check that off, maybe we’ll turn our attention a little farther north. My wife has been to a Yankees game with me, at the old stadium, but neither of us has been to the new. Again, we’ll just have to make sure it’s a relatively uncontroversial match-up, Yankees-Mariners or something. Then again, the next time we head to New York, it might have to be for the Broadway version of Hedwig and the Angry Inch, which just the other night my wife informed me would see Neil Patrick Harris stepping into the title role next spring. And that, in a nutshell, is why I love my wife and consider myself an astonishingly lucky guy: to have found and be with someone who shares and/or can indulge me in my passions equally whether that means baseball or rock-n-roll musicals, it really doesn’t get any better than that.

Monday, June 17, 2013

MONDAY BONUS: Flawed (Man of Steel)

I didn’t care for it. That’s the bottom line but let’s just get it out of the way right up front here. I did not like the new Superman movie, for a multitude of reasons. I found it deeply problematic on many levels, and one of those levels was the obsessive comic book geek who took note of every fundamental aspect of the Superman mythos which was changed from the source material and deemed pretty much all of those changes for the worse. Not that change is always automatically bad and I expect reverent adherence to the holy foundational texts, but these were changes I legitimately felt diminished the end product and I could make cogent arguments to back them up. But that’s not really even the level that I want to talk about here and now.

Man of Steel runs, I believe, about 143 minutes long and I’m pretty sure I could write at least a 143 page book about everything wrong-headed in the film. And that does not mean that everything about the movie sucked. It looked fantastic. If nothing else, Zack Snyder is a visual storytelling genius (or at least an idiot savant). The casting and the acting were impeccable, particularly Michael Shannon as the big bad General Zod. But the script was pretty much garbage. There were a couple of poetic lines of dialogue which really sang to me, so again, nothing is really a one hundred percent loss. But the plot holes, the logical inconsistencies, the nonsensical stabs at philosophy, the risible pseudoscience, the self-contradicting introduction and follow-up on big ideas, all just bad bad bad stuff.

And it got me fairly wound up. I’ve mentioned a time or two (and no doubt will again) how unimpressed I was by Ang Lee’s Hulk movie. It just didn’t click with me, and I acknowledge that was probably half misguided efforts put into the film and half my own personal preferences and expectations not being met. But at the end of the day, so there was a bad Hulk movie I paid good money to see, so what? Tons of bad movies get produced and sell tickets every year. It’s not a crime against humanity.

But Superman is different. I’m not the world’s biggest Superman fan, as I never faithfully collected any Superman comics or anything. Yet I love Superman because of what he stands for. And that notion covers two very different concepts. On the one hand, Superman stands for all superheroes, the common ancestor of the genre that thrilled me throughout my childhood (and well beyond). Just say the words “comic book” or “superhero” and for most people Superman is no doubt what springs to mind. That makes the character important to me.

But at the same time, there’s so much more that Superman stands for. Truth, justice and the American way. The never-ending struggle against evil. Protecting people. Saving people. Aspiration. Inspiration. Way way back in 1938 Superman was just an idea a couple of kids from Cleveland had that might tap into the science-fiction craze and maybe liven up the funny pages, but it was a good idea. It was an idea with potential to speak to just about everyone. And over the course of 75 years, that’s exactly what it’s done. Superman is a trademarked and copyrighted character belonging to a huge multinational media corporation, that is technically on-paper true. But everybody knows that he belongs to the popular imagination, a deeply embedded element of human mythology, and a very special one at that.

There are millions of Superman stories yet to be told, and some will only ever exist as a crayon drawings or as the live theater of action figures in a child’s hands, but some will reach a wider audience. So when a brand new summer blockbuster arrives, adding one more Superman story to the legacy, but it fails to illuminate what makes Superman everything he’s supposed to be, that does not sit well with me. It may sound hopelessly overblown, but it makes me angry in a way that I can’t deny.

As far as I am concerned there are two valid approaches to Superman. In one, he always does the right thing. In the other, he does the right thing about 97% of the time. That’s it. Those are your choices. If you want to tell a story about a paragon of morality and compassion and properly wielded power, Superman is your guy. If you want to tell a story about gray areas, about how the most fully optimized idealist cannot always be unerring, I’m ok with attaching that to Superman, but we had still better be talking about someone who always tries to do the right thing and falls short in a way that leaves no doubt that it is still important to always try.

Let me back up a little for a bit more of a big-picture survey of various interpretations of Superman. In Action Comics #1, the story really kind of starts in the middle. Everything is in place: the double identity as Clark Kent and Superman, the full power set, the costume, the day job as a reporter, and the crusade against criminals (and, significantly, exploiters of the working class who might not be doing anything illegal but still need some social comeuppance). It was only later that the backstory got filled in and fleshed out, including the nature of planet Krypton and the trials and tribulations of Clark Kent’s childhood and the public debut of Superman. That last bit has taken on a fairly codified structure over the years, too. Usually, one way or another, people become aware of Superman when he averts a plane crash. It’s the ideal scenario for Superman for many reasons.

Number one, a single person preventing a plane full of passengers from crashing is amazing, so it demonstrates his most impressive (and wish-fulfilling) powers, flight and super-strength. Number two, it’s something that no one else can do. In the real world, sometimes planes crash, and there’s very little we can do about it. It’s a mitigated risk we simply live with. But the implication just beneath the surface is that without Superman, the people on the plane would have died. Not “oh, well, the firefighters would have gotten people to safety, Superman just did it flashier” or “oh, the cops would have caught the crooks eventually, Superman’s a vigilante”. Superman makes the difference between life and death in a unique way. Number three, it doesn’t really serve any particular agenda other than serving mankind. Superman doesn’t reveal himself to the public by stopping an assassination attempt on the President. He doesn’t get involved in a political military skirmish. He doesn’t save a celebrity or a CEO or a scientist. He just saves people who need saving, with no qualifiers needed.

Number four, but maybe most importantly, the airplane is a symbol. What’s more amazing: that an alien belonging to a race that evolved under a red sun would be able to fly under a yellow one, or that a race that evolved from arboreal primates would be able to build a machine that allowed them to fly faster and farther than anything else on Earth? We are not invulnerable but we dare the impossible all the time and always have. Superman’s reason for being is not to do things for us, but rather to reassure us that we can keep doing what we’ve done and he will catch us if we fall in the attempt. It’s a fantasy, but it’s an incredibly comforting one.

So in the comics Superman showed up in bright red and yellow and blue to save a planeload of passengers, and when they re-imagined his origin in the 1980’s it was changed to an experimental space plane on its maiden voyage, showing how far mankind’s aspirations had expanded but still making the same point about Superman’s relationship to them. In the original Superman The Motion Picture, there’s a jetliner rescued as well as a helicopter crash averted (and don’t forget Superman’s little nugget about not giving up on air travel because “statistically speaking it’s still the safest way to travel” - in other words he wants us to keep flying under our own power, not just surrender to either fear or to letting him ferry us all around at no risk forever). And even in Superman Returns, which was in its own painful ways a resoundingly unsuccessful film, what’s generally accepted as the best setpiece in the movie is Superman’s rescue of the airplane piggybacking the Space Shuttle. It’s just quintessential Superman material.

Now, the movies have always had a tendency to ramp up the stakes because they only have a couple of hours to make their points and tell their stories, whereas comics have one issue after another forever and ever. So in the 1978 flick it’s Air Force One that loses an engine to a lightning strike and needs Superman to guide it to safety, and of course it’s Lois Lane’s helicopter that almost crashes. And in Superman Returns, of course Lois is on board the airplane covering the Space Shuttle launch. So, there’s a bit of short shrift given to the idea that Superman is not just here to protect the powerful elite or the people he cares about personally, but everyone. But still, Christopher Reeve catches Margot Kidder with one hand and the helicopter with the other, to make sure no one on the Metropolis streets below gets hurt by a falling wreck, and Brandon Routh does save an entire stadium full of people that the airplane would have crashed into.

The point is, Superman intervenes in an accident or disaster which is not his fault, in fact is no one’s fault but just one of those things, and he saves lives. And the only reason he does this is because he was raised to believe that helping people is the right thing to do, and he is uniquely qualified to help in certain ways. He chose his moment to begin publically helping people, not that he ever stood by and let people die, but perhaps he didn’t help in such a flashy, splashy way until the airplane scenario presented itself. And it engendered a tremendous amount of goodwill, such that the next time disaster struck the flying colors of Superman would be a welcome sight. Which in turn meant that if a potential hostile and human-made threat, rather than an imminent uncontrollable disaster, were looming, no one would think twice about Superman dealing with that, as well. And if, at some point down the road, a threat should arise which happens to be aimed at Superman, the kind of thing the planet would have been spared if Superman did not exist in the first place, there would still be a calculation to be made that on balance humanity is better off with Superman in their corner, as well as an unassailable conviction that Superman would prevail.

The problem with Man of Steel is not that Superman at no point saves an airplane full of people (spoilers!). It’s that he barely saves anyone. As a kid (in flashback) he saves a bus full of fellow students when it accidentally drives off a bridge into a river. But his adoptive father reprimands him for potentially exposing his secret other-ness. As a result, later in the movie, another flashback shows how Clark’s adoptive father died, in a natural disaster(!!!) despite the fact that Clark could have saved him, because there were potential witnesses around and the “do not expose yourself” lesson had been so ingrained in him. When the costume debuts in the movie, it is not as Superman does something inspirational and life-affirming, but when he surrenders to the government because the threat aimed at him that earth only faces because of him has arrived. With no goodwill banked at all, Superman tries to defuse the threat of Zod and his fellow would-be world conquerors, and he eventually does so, at the expense of most of the city of Metropolis literally being razed to the ground, with the implied death-toll absolutely mind boggling.

Sigh. There’s a Superman trope which borders on cliche, which goes a little like this: Superman squares off against a supervillain who is his physical equal. Superman takes the first shot, which does nothing, and Superman thinks about how he’s so used to holding back and pulling his punches because if he hit any common purse snatcher full-strength he would frappe their skeletal-muscular system. Then the villain hits Superman without holding back, and knocks Superman into a building, which starts to collapse. Superman props up the building while the people inside run to safety ahead of the collapse, and the villain takes another cheap shot at Superman. So for the whole duration of the fight, Superman is on the receiving end of a beating because he is prioritizing protecting innocent bystanders above hitting the bad guy back. But eventually, Superman has taken care of his first priority and is able to turn his full attention to the bad guy, and the bad guy is quickly disabused of his notion that he ever had the upper hand as Superman throws a right cross that knocks the bad guy into geosynchronous orbit (with Neptune).

Man of Steel’s protracted climax is essentially this trope, without the prioritized value system. Zod punches Superman, Superman punches Zod back, over and over and over, with buildings collapsing left and right and people running and screaming and Superman never lifting a finger to help them, all his attention focused on the fight. It’s a visceral, gut-wrenching sequence and it goes against everything that Superman has ever meant or stood for. I guess it reflects screenwriter David S. Goyer’s obsession with making superhero movies that take place in the “real world” and show what would “really happen” if the comic books came to life, coupled with a desire to make Man of Steel different from all the other Superman stories before it, just for difference’s sake.

But all that really accomplished was making Man of Steel an outlier, and a grim and joyless one at that. Not to mention a nonsensically hypocritical treatise on the nature of trust. That word, trust, gets thrown around dozens of times in Man of Steel, as if some kind of grand statement is being made. But the Superman character in the film does nothing to earn anyone’s trust, and does plenty to make humanity (especially the citizens of Metropolis) distrust, fear and hate him. Except they don’t, because this is supposed to be the beginning not just of a new Superman film franchise but also the cornerstone of a DC cinematic universe that a Justice League movie might someday spin out of. So not that there’s any internal story logic for people accepting Superman, just that he needs to be accepted for marketing reasons. But Man of Steel has the gall to end with Superman calmly informing a U.S. Army general that he’s “just going to have to trust me”. It’s not earned, but it is true that if an all-powerful alien demanded trust, we really wouldn’t have much choice. In the movie I suspect it’s meant to be a bit of a joke and show Superman’s independent streak, but it comes off as both smug and creepy.

Again, I’m not a Superman zealot who thinks that all Superman stories should portray him as incorruptible and infallible. (Smallville is my guilty pleasure, for crying out loud.) And there’s rich material to be explored in the early goings of Superman’s career, when he’s unsure of himself in every way. There’s also rich material in Superman facing his greatest challenge in the form of vengeful General Zod. But I think it was a huge mistake to try to combine the two stories into one movie (even Richard Donner recognized the wisdom in taking those ideas in turn in Superman and Superman II). In Man of Steel, Superman never has a chance to learn how it's more important (and more effective) to influence lives, through his own shining example, than to merely save them by being physically capable and in the right place at the right time. He never gets much of a chance to do either, he simply slots in as a very utilitarian solution to a completely terrifying external problem. Civilization has plenty of stories like that, and I’m not sure we needed any more. But I’m positive we can always use more stories about doing good for its own sake and putting others ahead of ourselves. It’s a shame the makers of Man of Steel didn’t seize the obvious opportunity they had to provide one.

Too-familiar territory

So the reason I drove to work on Friday rather than taking the train was because I needed to stop off first thing in the morning at the offices of my corporate HQ, where a member of our internal security department took two sets of fingerprints to be submitted as part of my latest background investigation. I had a background check done about four years ago but now I need another one, apparently, although this came as news to all of us who have been trying to get this system migrated over to the classified network. Clearly if we had known that such measures were required they would have been initiated months and months ago as opposed to last week. But, again, either the requirements have changed just within the (admittedly wide) window of time during which this project has been ongoing, or it’s so far outside the standard rigidly-defined norms that it’s impossible to keep up with all the exceptions being made that we need to respond to accordingly.

At any rate, the investigation has been initiated (see below) and I’ve submitted everything they’ve asked for and supposedly while it’s underway (also see below) I can be granted a written waiver to start doing the actual transition work so that we stand a small chance in flaming perdition of hitting our early July deadline. Of course there is some nebulosity as to what exactly “initiated” and “underway” mean because of course it didn’t count when I had just logged in and started filling out online forms about my work history and (non-existent) prior contacts with foreign governments, so everything I’ve done so far no doubt has to be collected and submitted and officially entered into some Cold War era mainframe and then when those gears are spinning things will truly be far enough along that I can be granted my slight shortcut waiver. But your guess is as good as mine as to when that is going to happen, and thus at the moment I am in hurry up and wait mode once again.

And I probably shouldn’t say any more on the subject, because not only am I simultaneously repeating myself and saying nothing of substance, but I really shouldn’t tempt fate that the new background check will somehow discover this blog and piece together what a complaining, implicitly untrustworthy crank I am. But over the weekend I did in fact make the Saturday night showing of Man of Steel, so I will pause here and post again later today with my breakdown of that cinematic experience.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Saturday Grab Bag of Things To Come

As if the hassles at work weren't already hasslier than usual this week, I also broke my badge. It got caught between my belly and the edge of the desk as I leaned across for something and snapped in half. That cannot be a good sign. It's held together with packing tape now, and it still reads in the electronic door locks for the office suite, but it's probably only a matter of time before it becomes useless. I'm supposed to get a new one at the end of September (assuming as always that our contract is renewed for the coming fiscal year) so we will see if I can hobble along broken-badged for three and a half more months.


Anyway, while I'm on the subject, I know the latest round of newly instituted security measures by which I must abide at work were presumably in the works for a while, and thus are not a knee-jerk reaction to all the news the past couple of weeks about You-Know-Who (I am of course now assuming that the NSA is monitoring this blog and I don't want to set off any suspicious sympathizer keyword alarms by invoking the name of the perfidious Leaker of the Moment). However, I would not be surprised if the extremely to-the-letter enforcement I've been athwart of is somewhat influenced by current front page news.

Here's the only thing about the intersection of the two that I've been thinking lately, though: when You-Know-Who got canned, his salary made headlines. He made more than I do. I'm wondering if I should ask my contracting boss for a raise putting me slightly above what You-Know-Who was making, based on the fact that I have NOT divulged any classified secrets to the press. Like, ever! That's gotta be worth some compensation, right?


A brief-lived offshoot of the post-Iron Man 3 conversation my buddy Clutch and I had involved some speculation about what exactly is going on with Warner Brothers' ownership of the DC Comics properties, and whether Man of Steel will someday be looked back on as the movie that kicked off a shared DC cinematic universe, and whether or not there will ever be a Justice League mega-blockbuster movie comparable to The Avengers. Specifically, the "comparable" part - any attempt at establishing a cinematic universe of varied superhero franchises which then can be combined into a mega-blockbuster team-oriented movie would inevitably seem like DC was imitating Marvel. DC Comics pre-date Marvel by a good two-decades-plus, so this is somewhat ironic. But it's also a far trickier proposition based on some fundamental differences between the two companies' overall thematic approaches to superheroes ... but maybe that's a subject for another post, probably.

In any case, I'm supposed to go see Man of Steel with the guys tonight, so I will be able to riff off that specifically in the near future.

Friday, June 14, 2013

So easy to say that you’ll forget your past

This morning (for reasons too dreary to get into right now) I drove to work rather than take the train. It gave me the opportunity to listen to the radio for a long, unbroken stretch, which I really don’t do all that much these days. Of course, as I’ve lamented around these parts before, commercial FM radio doesn’t have the same raw appeal for me that it once did (a decade or so ago) but I’ve resigned myself to the local dinosaur rock station. It’s the music I grew up on, and while it’s not going to broaden my horizons any it is comfortable and nostalgic and unobjectionable. Given unlimited time and resources to investigate both new stuff and old classics I’d missed, I would probably prioritize reading everything (books and comics) I wanted to read, followed second by watching everything (movies and tv) that I wanted to watch, followed third by listening to everything (music and podcasts) I wanted to listen to. But since I don’t have unlimited time and resources, I’ve made peace with just occasionally nodding along to the same Stones and BOC and ZZ Top tunes that are always in heavy rotation.

Much to my surprise and delight, though, this morning the algorithm that determines the usually inflexibly repetitive playlist for the dinosaur rock station managed to slip in The Breakup Song (They Don't Write 'Em) by the Greg Kihn Band, which happens to be one of my favorite lost classics (and not just because it has parentheses in the title, either). It’s a little thing, but hearing a song I really love and don’t hear all that often kind of made my drive significantly happier than the gazillionth listen to Sweet Home Alabama or More Than a Feeling.

I started this blog in late August of 2009, so right before I turned 35 years old. About two years earlier, I had put together a massive iTunes playlist in preparation for my 33rd birthday party. The playlist was a semi-autobiographical retrospective consisting of three songs from each year between when I was born and the present, in chronological order. Not necessarily the three highest-charting or best-selling, or even the three that best stood the test of time, but just some of my own beloved favorites. In some cases obviously I was too young at the time to have been a fan of the song ever since its release, but in just about all cases they were songs I came back to again and again because they held some kind of special meaning for me, be it association with a particular memory or a resonant piece of personal philosophy in the lyrics. Of course I limited myself to one song per artist across the whole 99-song survey, because arbitrary rules like that are a must in my mental exercises, so it’s a fairly eclectic mix. If I had been keeping this blog back in 2007, clearly I would have made a running series out of identifying and explaining my choices for the songs that made the cut, but as it went down I never wrote out any of it, just kept it all in the back of my mind and let the music speak for itself at my party (which now that I think about it might have been one of the last heavily prepped theme parties I threw; the little guy was born just under a year later).

The Breakup Song (They Don't Write 'Em) was one of the trio from 1981 in my playlist, it probably goes without saying. I was a little surprised, when it came around on the stereo-iPod combo at the party, that the tune got so few “Oh, hey I haven’t heard this song in ages!” and so many puzzled “I have never heard this song in my life” reactions. But so it goes with personal faves, no matter how compelling the story behind how they achieved that exalted status.

I suppose it’s not too late for me to revisit that playlist and give it some attention hereabouts. Honestly (and this should really not come as a surprise to anyone) I’ve been thinking lately about the kinds of reflective big picture topics I might take on as a running theme next year, after I’ve thoroughly run the (sporadically adhered to) Theme Month thing into the ground over the course of 2013. 2014 is the year I turn 40, and those big round zero-years call for taking things to the next level, if anything does. Watch this space!