Thursday, January 31, 2013

(Not-so-)New Resolutions

Somehow today is the last day of January, a development which I assured you was not cleared with me. Still, this seems like an apt time (or, at best, the least inapt opportunity remaining to me) to post my pop culture resolutions for 2013.

1. Watch Vertigo. I can already cross this one off the list, since I managed it this week.

2. Plus 24 other 1001 movies. Also as indicated in the above-linked post, I enjoyed being part of the 1001 Movies Blog Club last year and see no reason not to renew my commitment.

3. Finish Smallville. I have two seasons left to go, which amounts to about 44 episodes. As long as I average one per week I should make it by the end of the year (and usually when I set to it I wind up watching two or three at a go). I hear it only gets more ludicrous down the final stretch, so that should be fun.

4. Finish Akira. I am halfway through the six-volume manga masterpiece, after resolving to read all the books in the series several years ago. I certainly enjoy the books, so this is purely a matter of picking up the pace and powering through the remainder a bit faster. I’d like to say this could align nicely with my previously expressed intentions to focus on anime in May, but realistically I’d better give myself the rest of the year.

5. Re-read A Song of Ice and Fire. A leftover from last year, but worth giving myself an extension on, I reckon. Ideally I’ll get started on this soon, and hopefully have refreshed my memory on the first book and the early parts of the second before my wife and I start ripping through Game of Thrones Season Two sometime in the back half of February. The race is on!

So classic cinema, superhero tv shows, Japanese sci-fi comics and fantasy novel series … business as usual! Clearly this is not so much a bunch of new leaves to turn over as a set number of goals to achieve, so that when I’m amusing myself to death I can also tell myself that I’m accomplishing some things. Things on a list!

Ms. Prime if you’re nasty

Apparently Autobots and Decepticons are still a thing that kids are into, if we assume that the toys found in a McDonald’s Happy Meal generally tend to be vaguely zeitgeist-y. I know the last Michael Bay Transformers movie was in theaters a mere year and a half ago, but my impression (formed from a distance, as I find the overall vibe in the trailers for those flicks really offputting and as a consequence I’ve never seen any of them) is that those are action movies for adolescent-or-older audiences, not necessarily reflective of the continued existence of toys marketed directly at elementary school kids like the ones I remember from my misspent youth. But the kids spent an afternoon with their grandparents recently and the little guy came home with an Optimus Prime figure from his Happy Meal, which makes me think the robots in disguise are not entirely confined to the nostalgia heap of Gen X.

And that in turn makes me happy. I was no longer really playing with Transformers by about the time Hot Rod became Rodimus Prime, and I gave up completely on even keeping track of the complex continuity of the franchise when Beast Wars was the new name of the game. But if things come full circle and my son ends up playing out his own Optimus Prime led adventures, I’d be pretty down with that.

It seemed like things were getting off to a rocky start, though, when my son kept insisting that Optimus Prime was a girl. I’ll straightaway dispense with the fact that yes, I know, it does not really matter whether or not my offspring correctly identifies the canonical gender identity of a fictional asexual machine. But of course once we get past that, all sorts of questions come up. My kids have never seen the Transformers in any media, or heard Optimus Prime’s unmistakable voice, so the little guy has only the toy itself to go on. What about it would evoke the feminine association? Is it the fact that he transforms from truck to robot, and trucks are vehicles, and vehicles (our family cars certainly included) usually get referred to as “she”? Is it the updated design of Optimus Prime’s body, which is less boxy and, to be perfectly frank, has a tiny little waist and a prominent chest?

It’s not that there’s anything wrong with female characters as playthings for boys, or even role models for boys, not in my book. I know it’s objectively inaccurate to refer to Optimus Prime as a girl, but I didn’t think it was inherently terrible for the little guy to think that. I just had to know why.

So finally I asked him point blank. And he answered with absolutely no hesitation: “Because ‘Miss’ is what you call a girl. Her name is Opta … MISS … Prime.” Well, all right then. I made a bit of a stab at really emphasizing the pronunciation of that final U and informing the little guy that Optimus is all one word that means “the best” but there’s only so many times you can say “Opti-moose” before it starts to sound exceedingly silly. So we may very well end up with a toy box full of Transgendered Transformers in our house at some point, but as long as everyone’s happy with the state of play, I can’t complain too much.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Wholly unnecessary addendum

Green Lantern Month is almost over and I have not really had time to watch or read (let alone comment on) the animated Emerald Knights Blu-ray I have sitting at home or the third volume of Sleepers I am determined to acquire. Nor did I even get into the sordid saga (note: not really that sordid) of how my lovely wife received a DVD copy of Madagascar 3 in a work Christmas exchange, which her co-worker explained was something she thought the kids might enjoy (and really, that is a whole separate kettle of weird-fish right there, just bypassing the self-actualized person in front of you and buying gifts ostensibly in their name which are completely intended to be for their offspring, I mean, that's not just me finding that odd, right?) and my wife deciding to use the gift receipt to exchange it but ultimately opting to give me the DVD and receipt and urging me, in the spirit of the season, to get something for myself. I did follow through, just a week or so ago, by picking up the live-action Green Lantern movie (Extended Cut!) on Blu-ray, despite not loving the movie that much the first time, but compelled nonetheless to give it another shot and perhaps send out karmic good vibes for a superior sequel to materialize someday.

The common thread among Emerald Knights, Sleepers: Book Three and Ryan Reynolds's Ring-Bro is not only the Green Lantern but a specific focus on Hal Jordan, who was the Super Friends' GL and will probably always be the most famous version of the character. So during this self-indulgent month I have touched on Kyle and Jade and Alan but given short shrift to Hal, which seems a shame. I've promised a conclusion to the Sleepers reviews (promised myself; don't worry, I know no one else actually cares) and it's always possible I'll get to the Blu-rays later, possibly in March when I'm on baby leave and didn't have a set theme for the blog planned anyway. But still. Poor Hal.

Thus, in honor of today's post about Hitchcock's Vertigo, please enjoy the following artwork of Green Lantern Hal Jordan, punching out a bad guy who goes by the name Count Vertigo.

Count Vertigo is not one of Green Lantern's traditional adversaries, but when you're in the Justice League you do kind of end up fighting everybody sooner or later. Vertigo's powers, as you might expect, involve inducing a state of dizziness and disorientation in his victims in order to incapacitate them. He was introduced in DC Comics in the late 70's and became something of a fan favorite in the 90's due to his involvement in a fantastic series called Suicide Squad (a supervillain take on the Dirty Dozen concept). I have to imagine that the enduring popularity of Hitchcock's film was on some level responsible for the word "vertigo" striking someone as both a good concept for a villain and a term the general public would at least be passingly familiar with.

I look up, I look down (Vertigo)

Something of a theme emerged for me in 2011, with regards to watching (or more specifically, catching up on) movies. That was the year I finally managed to rent, watch, and return more than twelve movies from Netflix in over the course of the calendar, and feel somewhat justified in paying for the subscription in the first place. I suspect this was all tied up in multiple factors in addition to my will alone. As I recall, late 2010 was when the floodgates were opened as far as allowing the little guy to watch tv and movies (since he turned two that September) and it was not long after that we bought the portable DVD player for him to make long car trips a little easier on all of us. And right around that 2010/2011 transition must have also been when I started riding the VRE more frequently, which meant I spent less time behind the wheel and more time making use of said portable DVD player. The device wore out finally, not too long ago, but has already been replaced, since at this point it’s hard to imagine living without one. Heck, when the little girl turns two this spring we might have to get a second one.

But if 2011 was the year I started ratcheting up my rate of consumption of movies, 2012 was the year I got serious about film. Obviously joining the 1001 Movies Blog Club was a big part of that, on the one hand holding myself to something of a structured schedule for checking out movies that other people (who don’t necessarily share my geeky aesthetic sensibilities) select, and at the same time evaluating those movies not as good or bad time-fillers but as works I should share my thoughts on with others, instead of just talking to myself (as I’m wont to do). And the fact that all these movies would be, arguably, part of a super-canon of worthwhile film meant that in addition to stretching outside my comfort zone I’d be filling in some important gaps in my personal knowledge.

So after making it through all of 2012 and not just sticking with the 1001 Movies Blog Club (in my own catch-as-catch-can way) but honestly enjoying it immensely, I decided that in honor of the new year I should keep things going by making time to – finally! – watch one of the most lauded films on the entire 1001 list: Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo.

Of course, Vertigo is essentially review-proof. Last year, it knocked off Citizen Kane (which, thankfully, I did get to watch in college) from the number one slot on the Sight & Sound poll of the greatest films of all time. Kind of a big deal. It should probably be enough to say that I’ve now seen it, and you may safely assume that I enjoyed everything about it. It’s mesmerizing (both the visuals and the score), it’s thought-provoking, it’s technically innovative, it’s basically everything a connoisseur of cinema could want to feast on, and on top of that it’s a compelling story delivered almost entirely through the stellar performances of Jimmy Stewart and Kim Novak. If you’re hoping that I’m going to pull out some contrarian take on how Vertigo is overrated and deeply flawed, I am sorry to disappoint you.

So on the one hand, what’s great about Vertigo ends up getting a short answer (everything), while on the other hand, what’s interesting about Vertigo could potentially get an answer so long that it would run over the limits of a single blog post, or even the multiple posts I indulge in from time to time (on your Cabins in the Woods and Dark Knights Rising and whatnot). And even that would, I’m sure, be highly redundant with the vast amounts of scholarly criticism about the film out there in the world. I’ll try to restrain myself by focusing on one or two element in particular that I found personally meaningful. (Spoilers follow; yes the movie is 55 years old but after all I hadn’t seen it before this week, either.)

After going on as I did yesterday about the importance of conflict-embodying villains in fiction, I was fascinated by Scotty’s character arc. I suppose it depends a lot on how much stock you put in distressed mental states as extenuating or exculpatory circumstances, but Scotty starts out the movie as a pretty clear-cut hero type and yet by the end of the movie he’s … if not the villain, at least playing the part really well, doing wrong things for all the wrong reasons and all but guaranteeing that things will not end well. He’s a victim, too, of the machinations of a murderer and his accomplice and also of his own obsessions. And I think it’s the final bell tower scene of the movie that really puts Vertigo over the top, in the way that everything comes together as Stewart, and Novak too, portray these complicated multi-layered characters in such a heightened state. (Also, the undiluted terror of nuns who come out of nowhere, which goes without saying.)

Madeleine/Judy, too, works her way through the three classic archetypes; maybe the argument casting her as a hero is an uphill one, but villain and victim can’t be denied. A villain is always, practically by definition, proactive while a victim can be proactive or reactive or even passive. Sometimes victimization occurs in spite of best efforts, because the forces arrayed against the victim are so much stronger, but sometimes the victim is nothing but a sacrificial lamb. And I do think it’s unfortunate that Novak plays the victim so passively in the climax of Vertigo. I was expecting a lot of the movie to seem dated, but clothing and automobile styles aside I really found most of it timeless, except for Madeleine/Judy’s feminine passivity in the climax. And yes I’m filtering things through my own modern sensibilities (sensitive-New-Age-guy with a wife I love and a daughter I’m trying to raise right) but nevertheless there was a part of my brain wondering why Madeleine/Judy would let Scotty manhandle her up the bell tower stairs. With her physical safety in mortal peril you would think she would be able to break free and run away, unless the implication is that she wants to be manhandled and forced to submit to a man’s will; the gender politics are pretty skewed either way, not necessarily in the known universe of 1958, but to me. At the very least, it’s understandable why directors would want to revisit (and revise) the formulations of Vertigo after the sexual revolution, with somewhat shifted power dynamics; if anything it’s kind of surprising that more of them haven’t.

Except that updating the classics always sets you up to pale in comparison, and that goes double for classics-among-classics like Vertigo. It’s not a perfect movie, but no such thing exists, does it? The best we can hope for is movies that amaze with their triumphs and tics altogether. And just the fact that Vertigo lives up to its hype is pretty amazing.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Somewhat less murky (Green Lantern: Sleepers, Book Two)

It is still Green Lantern Month and, as I had indicated previously, I have not yet abandoned the Sleepers trilogy of Green Lantern novels. In fact last week I finished reading Book Two of the series. I’m happy to report that the second installment was a marked improvement over the first. Granted, this was not much of an achievement, given how low the bar had been set. I gave Book One a single star on Goodreads, while Book Two got two stars from me. On the one hand, 100% better! On the other hand, still far from great.

Numerous things worked out in Book Two’s favor, from my perspective, but here are three biggies:

1. Historical perspective. Book Two concerns itself almost exclusively with Alan Scott, the Golden Age Green Lantern whose exploits were originally published against the backdrop of World War II. The novel ends up as part origin story for the hero and part WWII adventure. Priest got himself a different co-writer for this outing, Michael Ahn, who is an expert on World War II history and clearly helped bring a wealth of accurate detail to the story, providing some welcome verisimilitude. (Book One, in case I didn’t make it clear last time, is set in the nominal present but is much more a sci-fi yarn, with some time spent on the Moon, some on Saturn, and arguably entirely too much in an anti-matter universe where every aspect of an alternate physical existence has to be invented and over-explained.) Back when the original Green Lantern was a going thing, there was much more emphasis on action and spectacle in the disposable children’s entertainment and correspondingly less time devoted to fleshing out the hero beyond being brave and moral and worth rooting for. Thus the circumstances of Alan Scott’s life before he received his magic green ring, not to mention the inner workings of his heart and mind, are areas where Priest can break new ground, as far as I know. Which more or less leads to the second point …

2. Alan Scott is not my favorite GL. I like Alan as a character, I appreciate how he fits into the whole mythos of the legacy, but I haven’t read and re-read his adventures obsessively, the way I have for Hal Jordan and Kyle Rayner. I was quick to jump on Book One for portraying Kyle as a bit of an idiot, because in my opinion that’s not consistent with the character I know and love. Book Two portrays Alan with his own quirks and flaws, but none of them rubbed me the wrong way. Maybe it was a more faithful rendering of the character, maybe I just didn’t notice the liberties Priest took fleshing out the original GL because I’m not overly familiar with the character, but the fact is, the book as a whole went down significantly easier. Including, in the third point …

3. A much better villain. I’ve tried many times (hereabouts and elsewhere) to identify the major differences between serious art and genre trash, but it’s entirely possible that the easiest way to separate the two is to ask whether or not a story has an unmistakable Bad Guy wrapped up in the central conflict. If it doesn’t, it’s probably literature; if it does, it’s closer to the pulp ghetto that I adore. (If there is no central conflict, it’s really not my cup of tea.) Villains are a ton of fun, especially when they’re done well, and supervillains even moreso. Malvolio, the antagonist in Sleepers: Book Two, makes an excellent foil for Alan Scott and memorable baddie in his own right. It’s a character Priest created himself when he was writing Green Lantern comics, so that makes a certain amount of sense. Certainly Malvolio makes a more compelling threat than the strange Sinestro clone-hybrid who divides his mental energies between serving the anti-matter Qwardians and macking on Jenny-Lynn in Book One. (If most if not all of the preceding sentence seems like gibberish, please rest assured that it didn’t make much more sense than that to me, a GL-fanatic, reading the actual novel in question.)

A distressing side effect of my recognition of Book Two’s superiority is this: I started wondering, since Malvolio seems like a perfect fit for just about any Alan Scott story and particularly the one Priest chose to tell in the novel, why in the world couldn’t Kyle have gotten similar treatment? Instead of the mishmash of Sinestro (who is really Hal Jordan’s arch-enemy) and random invented psychobabble, why not just use … just … And then it hit me: Kyle Rayner’s rogues’ gallery is pathetic. He was the Green Lantern for over a decade, and in that time he never got a proper arch-enemy and barely fought anyone worth remembering now, and obviously no one worth trying to structure a novel around. Man, the 90’s really were a rough patch for comics.

So, Book One and Book Two of Sleepers were like night and day, and almost seem to like separate stand-alone novels except for a few provocatively connected bits. This is probably bad news; the trilogy started getting better, and also started showing signs that maybe, maybe there really is a thought-out master plan for the whole overarching story. Maybe Book Three will prove to be the keystone that provides logical context for everything I thought was so random and awful in the first two books (mostly Book One). Probably not! The odds are long. But I feel the spark of irrational exuberant optimism at this point, on the cusp of being fanned into a (green) flame. I don’t currently have a copy of Book Three, and it’s possible the feeling will pass before I manage to hunt one down, but either way I will bring things to a close as soon as I can.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Maybe next week

There I was, all mentally girded for the prospect of an honest 40-hour work week about to commence, when my wife asked me if I wanted to turn off my alarm clock, because it was sleeting outside and she had already checked the Office of Personnel Management website and learned that federal offices were opening late this morning. I was in no way so over-girded that I was going to argue with her, so I slept an extra hour and forty-five minutes or so longer than usual, had a leisurely breakfast, watched the kids while my wife showered (an exceedingly rare luxury for her, to get ready in the morning without racing the clock against the kids either waking up or watching too much tv), and read the OPM message for myself to see that I was being asked categorically to stay off the roads until at least 10 a.m. and report to work no later than noon. Of course by then the wintry mix had tapered off to a non-freezing drizzle, but again: not going to argue.

I did leave the house around 10, and had to drive myself to the Metro station, but the government did at least succeed in spreading out the morning rush hours to the point where I was hardly alone on 66 but the traffic was still moving at a decent clip. No major issues on the Metro, either, which always strikes me as borderline miraculous, no matter how the weather behaves. I got to the office around 11:30 or so and I could tell that I was one of the last people to arrive, but no one mentioned anything to me either way (plus one of the indicators on a normal day that one is well and truly late to work is that the sign-in attendance sheet has already been taken down, but it was waiting in its usual spot for me to mark myself 'present' for whatever that’s worth) and it has been a pretty quiet day overall.

I’d be slightly worried that, as a result of this morning’s outcomes, OPM would be too reluctant to pull the trigger on closing the federal offices when (if) we do actually get a substantial amount of snow this winter, but supposedly we’re headed into a week or two of unseasonably warm weather (which at least means we shouldn’t have a freak blizzard putting the kibosh on my friends’ Super Bowl party on Sunday), so when (if) it gets cold enough to snow again, memories of today’s overreaction will hopefully have faded. I also don’t have a lot of extra mental capacity for worry considering I’m far more apprehensive about facing the Metro and 66 again this afternoon when everyone’s trying to get home at the same time. (Despite not rolling in until the waning minutes of the morning, I am not staying at the Big Gray until 8 p.m., thanks.) If I make it home with my sanity intact, I will reflect upon that and other subjects at further length tomorrow.

Friday, January 25, 2013

T.G.I...???

I had the weirdest feeling when I got to work this morning that I was underdressed. The agency policy on Casual Friday hasn’t changed or anything; I think it was more that I couldn’t quite wrap my head around the fact that it was, truly, Friday. It took me a moment to sort through it, but eventually I realized that last Friday I had to take a sick day to stay home with the little girl, and the Friday before that I was out on my own medical leave, and the Friday before that … I think I was here, but clearly three weeks ago is way too far in the past for me to remember with absolute clarity. But the upshot is that I am out of practice getting dressed for the office on Fridays at all.

I do often think of the Dilbert cartoon about how 40% of employee sick days fall on Friday or Monday resulting in three-day weekends for said employees. It seems like a lot of my sick days, particularly the ones necessitated by one of the kids having a fever that precludes daycare, come on Friday as well. Depending on when the kids start showing symptoms, we might be able to leverage the fact that my wife has a mid-week day off to take care of them, or we might be able to persuade my mother-in-law to come up and watch her grandkids (it doesn’t take much persuading), but eventually all of those options get used up and my wife absolutely has to go back to work, and I take over. But because that’s the order in which we tend to run through the options, my stint falls at or near the end of the week. I used to worry that my boss would think I was scamming three-day weekends, but he’s not pointy-haired, and he also doesn’t have kids, so generally when I start an e-mail to him with “Up half the night with a screaming feverish toddler …” I believe he just shudders and offers up a quick better-him-than-me and leaves it at that.

Anyway, I figure I’ve got five more Fridays, max, before the new baby comes and I take some extended time off. And I’ll work all five of those Fridays assuming everyone stays healthy, and the snow remains a psychological threat only, which are fairly big if’s. Then I’ll get all off-schedule and sleep-deprived and whatnot and who knows how I’ll pull my head back together. But these are what constitute zany adventures for me these days, so I will take it as it comes.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

All good

The little guy got a big boy bicycle for Christmas, with training wheels of course and adorably right-sized for him but it has a real chain and coaster brakes and all that stuff. I admit that was more my wife’s idea than mine and I was somewhat skeptical that the little guy would be indifferent to it, specifically in regards to the sheer amount of physical work that riding a bike actually demands, and also because sometimes the little guy just hates change and trying new things. But he took to it pretty much right away.

We’ve been fortunate enough to be having a mild winter so far (in which, honestly, the tension has been killing me as everyone keeps insisting this winter will have major snowstorms since we got off light last year, but no blizzard has materialized yet, just today’s very light dusting. Snow and get it over with!) so the little guy has gotten to take the bike out for a spin maybe a half-dozen times since Christmas. And he’s made astounding progress, to my eye. His first time up in the saddle he was understandably tentative, and wasn’t quite getting the concept that if he didn’t keep pedaling the bike would just come to a stop, especially if he was facing slightly uphill. He also had a tendency to aim straight for the curb, then stop at the last possible second (or, beyond that, let the curb stop him), at which point he needed help reorienting the bike and getting started with a push again. But he got a little better each time and recently he seemed to find his physical rhythm in the constant turn of the pedals to the point where he could do it without thinking about it, which of course makes all the difference in the world as to whether something feels like work or feels like fun.

So over this recent long weekend I took him outside one afternoon to help him get the bike up the driveway, make sure he put his helmet on, and then just watch him ride in perpetual loops and figure eights under his own power around the cul-de-sac. I was calling out some encouragement in the early going but eventually it seemed like he had moved beyond really needing that, so I just stood on the sidewalk by the mailbox and observed. At one point he was riding more or less directly away from me, approaching the curve, but he turned the handlebars with room to spare, no big deal, and came about without breaking stride (or pedal-stroke, I guess). As he was heading toward me at that point, I smiled at him. He responded by continuing to pedal but also taking one hand off the handlebars to give me a thumbs-up. Also, he winked at me, so overall the message was clear: “I got this, Dad.”

He is four, did I mention that? No strange time anomaly resulting in him transforming into a precociously savvy twelve-year-old overnight or anything. He’s four. And he is a trip. And he’s getting brash about riding his bike as fast as he can, too. The weirdest thing is it’s less bittersweet than I thought it would be. I think on some level I do want him to grow up, not too quickly, but enough that when he does something as ridiculously beyond-his-years as give me a winking thumbs-up, all I can do is laugh and give a thumbs-up back.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Noble households, unalike

There are numerous shows on tv now (“on” in this case meaning they either air more or less weekly or are on hiatus/between seasons but should be back at some point in the future) which seem to be the closest thing possible to everyone-talks-about-it material: Girls, Louie, Breaking Bad, Justified, The Walking Dead, &c. It’s arguable that Community falls into that category as well, but that may or may not just be my unwavering devotion to it talking, and who knows if Community really will get its February 7 season premier or not. Community has always been appointment television for me and my wife, whereas the other (pop) culturally omnipresent shows on right now fall into one of two categories: those I’m a season or so behind on, but catching up with on Blu-ray; and those I’m not watching at all (for reasons which are not always synchronous with my desire to do so). There are really only two shows in the former category, Game of Thrones and Downton Abbey, which I’ve recently realized are pretty much as opposite one another as two shows can possibly get.

But of course, when you talk about opposites you often talk about two things which are actually quite similar yet have a few striking contrasts. Of course both Game of Thrones and Downton Abbey are serialized dramas, and both have to do with lords and ladies and servants, enmeshed in politics and wars as well as the mundane struggles of life. The most glaring difference between them is that Game of Thrones takes place in a fantasy world where, at the very least, there are zombies and dragons, and everyone is engaged in violent life-or-death struggles all the time. Downton Abbey is set in the nominally real world, a hundred years ago, and might as well be in the dictionary next to the word “grounded”.

I would argue that both Game of Thrones and Downton Abbey are explicitly escapist entertainments, as well, though again that fundamental similarity underscores how very different the approach on either show is from the other. Game of Thrones is geared toward visceral escapism, with all the bloodletting and copious nudity that premium cable allows, everything cranked up to maximum shock value to get the viewers’ blood pumping. And it’s also unrelentingly dark and bleak, portraying a harsh world where anything that can go wrong will go more horribly awry than the audience would have previously imagined possible. (To its credit, in my mind, this is because it’s pretty faithful to the books.) I suppose that makes Game of Thrones potentially cathartic, in the ancient and classical sense of presenting the trials and tribulations of mythic heroes in such a way that the audience stops feeling sorry for themselves and their own petty problems, and technically I’d say that satisfies the temporary respite aspect of escapism.

Downton Abbey, contrariwise, is escapism from the world around us into something more pleasant. I’ve latched onto at least three different levels on which this is the case. First, there’s the opulence of Lord Grantham’s hereditary estate. Of course everyone wants to live in a world where footmen and maids cater to one’s every whim, helping one dress in the finest fashions and serving one exquisite dinners and bringing around the horses or the auto or whatnot. Second, there’s the appeal of a different culture with different rules of behavior. I mean, not to sound like a grouchy old crank or anything, but I see enough commercials for reality shows to long for an escape from the insistence that whoever can be the rudest and most selfish and shout the loudest and most obscenely is the one who’s winning. Immersing oneself into the world of Downton Abbey, where everyone’s primary aim is to demonstrate their good breeding with excessive formality of conduct and polite (however hilariously passive-aggressive) speech, is like wrapping up in a soft warm blanket.


I mean, basically this is your Tyrion Lannister, right here.

Third, though, and maybe most important, Downton Abbey (so far! and see below for further disclaimer) provides an escape into a universe where the stakes are generally low and whatever problems do present themselves are solved to almost everyone’s satisfaction by the end of each episode. This may be the show’s most intrinsic anti-Game of Thrones quality; Downton Abbey is a world where everything goes right. Matthew takes his valet for granted? He’ll come around. Sybil cracks her head open in a post-election donnybrook? She’ll be fine. William doesn’t know his mother is ill? Mary will spill the beans because she does whatever she wants. Thomas and O’Brien try to frame Bates for something? They’re the most inept villains imaginable, and Bates will get the upper hand. I don’t know if there’s a word for the opposite of catharsis, and maybe that’s because we don’t really need one for “everything’s fine”.

Now, I grant you, I have read most of A Song of Ice and Fire so I’m pretty comfortable making broad sweeping statements about the episodes of Game of Thrones I haven’t seen, but my wife and I are only six episodes into Downton Abbey, so maybe I’m being slow-played by that show without even realizing it. I have noticed, at the very least, that what I thought was the most galling instance of tidy wrapping-up of plot threads, the cover-up of the circumstances of Mr. Pamouk’s death, has actually continued to have (minor) repercussions. But I would need to see more to really change my mind. I did notice a headline on a pop-culture site recently asking the question “What is at stake in Downton Abbey?” and although I did not click on the link because I knew it would be about season three, I assumed the answer was “Not much! Everything’s fine!”

That’s kind of the point, here, though. Game of Thrones and Downton Abbey are shows everyone is talking about right now, and it’s hard to be into them but incredibly vulnerable to spoilers and just generally unable to partake in the conversation. The Blu-ray of Game of Thrones season two I pre-ordered is supposed to arrive around the third week of February, by which point I hope to be done with the seasons one and two box set of Downton Abbey. But that third season, as I just said, is airing right now and season three of Game of Thrones should kick off in March, I believe. I can recall being a reader of the Harry Potter books,a bandwagon I didn’t jump on until around the time the fourth book was published and the movies started coming out. First I borrowed friends’ copies of the older books which had come out years ago. Then I would borrow copies of the newer books, and just be a few weeks behind the conversation. When the seventh book came out, though, I had to have it on release day, and bought my own copy (which to this day is the only Harry Potter book I own). I can see something similar happening with Game of Thrones and Downton Abbey, as my wife and I get sucked deeper and deeper into both, and possibly even catch up to the point where we could jump in on the first-airing broadcasts. Except of course for another crucial difference between the two: Downton Abbey is on PBS, which we already get, but we’d have to shell out for a subscription to HBO. Oh, Time and Money, my old nemeses, I’ll never really escape you.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Back to the salt mines

My employer does not give its workforce MLK as an automatic holiday; we do all receive eight fixed holidays (the biggies like Memorial Day and Independence Day, Thanksgiving and Christmas, &c.) plus two floating holidays, and the choice is ours whether or not to use those floaters on MLK, or Presidents’ Day, or Columbus Day, or just as extra leave whenever it’s most convenient. I am of course hoarding paid time off in advance of the birth of our baby, so I was planning on working yesterday, but my boss ended up giving everyone on the contract a free day off (he can do this via shuttling discretionary funds around, reimbursing the government for all of our charged hours for the day, I may have mentioned this before but really the bookkeeping aspect is not shady, just business as usual). He did this not because of any passionate belief that we all needed to reflect on the legacy of Dr. King, but because the presidential inauguration was also taking place yesterday, and mass transit was going to be either mobbed (in the case of Metro) or suspended (in the case of VRE) and he did not think it prudent to force everyone to contend with that. I’m sure there’s a lesson in there somewhere about the tension in modern American society between idealism and pragmatism, but then again I’ve never been one to argue with a free day off, whatever the reason.

It actually ended up being a four-day weekend for me. You may have noticed I did not blog on Friday, either; the little girl had been ill this past week, not sleeping well, and had a spectacularly rough night last Thursday night which made a pediatrician’s office visit on Friday seem wise. My wife couldn’t really miss work on Friday, so I ate the leave time. Turned out the pediatrician’s expert opinion was that the little girl simply had a non-exotic, non-scary virus and is still small enough herself that those bugs really take it out of her (not to mention she’s too small to safely take most medicines which would alleviate the symptoms). She’s feeling better now and went back to daycare alongside her brother this morning. No crazy twists and turns in the story, just another (legitimate) reason to bail on work.

The timing was fortuitous, honestly, what with the family visit over the weekend. Very little Bro ended up not joining the group (but promised to visit solo soon) but the rest of us had a refreshingly untroubled visit. Things between me and my Little Sis have always been fine, but there’s a level of volatility between my dad and me, and to a lesser extent my step-mom and me, not to mention between them and my wife (all of which, across the board, I place squarely on my dad and step-mom, it goes without saying) which sometimes makes our get-togethers stressful. But that was at a minimum this time. Probably largely due to the children/grandchildren who are now the de facto center of attention (and can do no wrong in any of the four sets of eyes). But I think another element was that I actually had what everyone always wants: a weekend visit with a day beforehand to get ready and a day afterwards to recover. While home on Friday with the little girl, who napped a lot due to congestion/exhaustion, I got some shopping and housecleaning done and we were totally ready for guests to descend upon us by (late) Saturday morning. The visit didn’t feel rushed, because my fam was able to stay until late in the evening both Saturday and Sunday and drive home all day Monday (they all had the holiday off), nor did anyone feel underfoot since my fam spent their nights at a nearby hotel. And my wife and I caught up on some laundry and such on Monday. If it weren’t for my overriding desire to sometimes use paid leave to take a week off and head someplace warm and beachy (or at least where there’s pools, like Vegas), I would always schedule all two-day family visits around four-day weekends.

All righty, everybody’s all caught up now, so tomorrow I should be able to get back to the excruciatingly geeky post-fodder. Join me then, won’t you?

Thursday, January 17, 2013

The Last Noel (of this winter)

My dad, step-mom, Little Sis and (maybe?) Very Little Bro (who for the record is a good bit older than Little Sis, it’s just that he’s the third of three boys, younger than my Little Bro, and Little Sis is the only girl) are coming to visit this weekend, which will officially close out the 2012 Christmas Season. My dad failed to get much Christmas shopping done on time, let alone put anything in the mail from Connecticut to Virginia (extenuating circumstances, but all the same this is far from unusual for him), but with spirits lifted by the actual high holy day he wanted to make this up to my family by coming to visit the weekend before New Years. Which would have been well and good if we hadn’t all been flu-stricken or in varying stages of recovery right around that time, so the visit got delayed, had to be rescheduled around other obligations, and finally wound up on the far side of mid-January. But the end of the tunnel is in sight!

A right floppy old elf.

As we were trying to coordinate this grand event I was apprehensive about the effects on the little guy and little girl of a brand new influx of presents (mostly toys I’m sure) from their third set of grandparents. I still am, slightly, but it’s definitely abated. The few days immediately after Christmas were clearly the worst, when both children were at maximum levels of curiosity about each other’s new swag and possessiveness about their own. And this was no doubt exacerbated by both of their parents being ill and not at the top of our games, refereeing-wise. Things have settled down remarkably since then, though, and in fact the little guy especially has been on a good streak of exhibiting entirely good behavior. I’m sure the visit from extended family (and attendant loot) will make both children a little hyper again, but at least I’m no longer fearing a bad situation taking a turn for the worse.

And honestly, we’re in the home stretch here with about eight weeks (or maybe less) to go before Baby #3 arrives on the scene, which is going to upend both of the older sibling’s lives in big, small and unpredictable ways. The little guy is excited, and has told us in no uncertain terms that my wife and I need to hurry up and get a new crib and put it in his room because the new baby is going to stay with him. We assured him that such a sleeping arrangement was likely to come about, but not for a while (read: many months if not years). And I’ve mentioned that the little girl loves playing caregiver, carrying around her doll (new from Christmas) and settling teddy bears down for naps. But all the enthusiasm for a same-gender sibling or keen interest in babies and baby stuff won’t, I know, completely offset the inevitable jealousy, hurt feelings, acting out, possible regression, &c. My point being that the little guy and little girl should enjoy things as they are while they still can and get while the getting’s good, and if that means getting spoiled rotten at Christmas III or IV (whatever we’re up to) an entire month off-schedule, I can’t really bring myself to begrudge them that.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Foreign concepts (Alphaville)

Theme month or not, Wednesday is still 1001 Movies Blog Club Day. At least in deference to Green Lantern Month I get to talk about a science fiction flick.

The singular defining characteristic of science-fiction is not so much subject matter as setting. All science-fiction stories share the same setting, which is “not our time and place.” They may play out their narratives on alien planets or in the interstellar void, or they may take place on Earth yet begin in the near or distant future, or they may unfold in a parallel here and now, except with a different past producing a skewed history and an unrecognizable present. Even very modest and small-scale science-fiction stories must incorporate some non-native element, and because the tradition of the genre is to examine the repercussions of changes to the system, even a small change will have ripple effects which generate an entirely new world.

The higher aim of creating and depicting a new world is not so much to provide an outlet for escapism (although that is a huge part of it, and it may be a lower aim but is still a perfectly valid one) as to make thought-provoking observations about the real world we all inhabit. Whiz-bang sci-fi composed primarily or entirely of elements from the author’s purest imagination, your Flash Gordons and Star Wars and whatnot, tilt the balance toward a lot of escapism and just a smidge of commentary on the human condition. More restrained sci-fi composed of extrapolations of present trends tilt the balance the other way, in works like 2001:A Space Odyssey (yay! I can reference that now!) and in Jean-Luc Godard’s Alphaville.

Alphaville is a movie from 1965 with a sci-fi premise but is shot like a film noir, with no post-production visual effects or characters in monster make-up or any of the usual trappings of the genre. But it is without question science fiction, depicting a cityscape where all important social decisions are made by an intelligent computer, logical behavior of the citizenry is mandatory and achieved through a combination of emotion-suppressing drugs and capital punishment for showing human feeling, and war is on the horizon between the urban center and the Outlands. The plot, such as it is, concerns a secret agent named Lemmy Caution (Eddie Constantine, who looks like a Jack Kirby drawing come to life, and not the handsome hero style but the deliberately lumpy and ugly style) who enters Alphaville posing as a journalist, ostensibly on a mission to destroy the supercomputer Alpha 60. He achieves his goal, but more importantly he rescues a young woman named Natacha by getting her out of the city and breaking through to her emotions.

I’m a sucker for these kinds of tales, by which I mean extrapolation-based sci-fi which are so old that we can now pretty definitively say that the author’s predictions were off-base. It is fascinating to me, though, to think of Godard in the mid-60’s, skeptical about the dawn of the computer age, thinking along the same lines the Rolling Stones would be when they recorded Mother’s Little Helper a short time later, and feeling the irresistible urge to tell a cautionary (check that protagonist’s name again) tale about the direction in which society seemed to be headed. Actually, someone probably could have remade Alphaville in the early 90’s, during the rise of Ritalin and the opening of the Internet, and struck a lot of the same chords. But I’d like to think that in the past almost 50 years we’ve backed away from the precipice at least somewhat.

What struck me as particularly illuminating was the opportunity to look at a culture other than my own through the dystopian lens. I admit that in some ways I am less well-traveled and open-minded than I would ideally like to be. That is, after all, part of the whole justification for me doing something like the 1001 Movie Blog Club, in order to broaden my horizons with more foreign films and older works and whatnot. I probably have some retrograde notions about the national character of people from, say, France. The denizens of Alphaville (particularly the recurring character-type of the “seductress third class”) come across as so bored and cold and aloof they are practically somnambulant, and the provincial part of my brain insisted on asking “Wait, is this supposed to be a bleak possible future? I thought that was basically how French people usually acted.” But, again, that’s the beauty of science fiction, its ability to conduct the audience to another reality, hold it up for examination and judge its components as worthy or wasteful. And that in turn can trigger new reflection on similar things in the real world which we tend to take for granted with no judgment at all. And sometimes that means a French director can, intentionally or not, take down a stereotype about his countrymen by putting it in a new context that leaves no question as to how undesirable a general indifference to life truly is.

And speaking of indifference to life, I’ve already namechecked 2001 but I really do have to mention the inevitable juxtaposition of Alpha 60 against HAL in my mind. Alphaville too faces the challenge of making an immobile collection of circuits and a distinctive voice into an on-screen character. Actually, Godard gets around the mobility issue in a few scenes by having Caution interviewed directly by Alpha 60, as boom mics on armatures move back and forth around his head, like robotic tentacles. Vocally, Alpha 60 is the exact opposite of serene, reassuring HAL; apparently the line readings were done by an older gentleman with a mechanical larynx, and sound appropriately abominable and vile (which I mean as a compliment, with all due respect to the cancer-surviving actor). The nightmarish descent of HAL from obedient instrument to manipulative killer is part of the point, which is why HAL has to start out so bland; Alpha 60 is clearly the villain of the piece from the get-go, and Godard makes no effort to hide it.

As intriguing as it is to watch decades-old sci-fi-noir from a French New Wave master, with its pleasantly disorienting double-removed setting (a science fiction world extrapolated from a country I’ve never been to in a time before I was born), I wouldn’t say Alphaville is a great film. It’s certainly good, and worthwhile (for me, at any rate) both for its illumination of world cinema and its appeal to my originality-in-genre-craving brain, and pretty much entirely unlike 98% of what I usually seek out on my own. But that is a highly specific combination of factors, all of which would make me hesitant to recommend Alphaville to anyone else who wasn’t coming at it from the same place as me. But then again, sci-fi shows again and again that the place where you are and a place where you are not may not be so different after all.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

A dim possibility (Green Lantern:Sleepers, Book One)

When I gave myself permission to indulge in a Green Lantern Month I figured there were two ways it could possibly go. It might simply end up as a stretch of time where I concentrated on consuming various Green Lantern-oriented entertainments that have managed to pile up, which in turn would become my go-to subject matter for my geekier posts. Or, it might end up giving me an opportunity to reflect a little more deeply on why this character (comics series/franchise/mythos/whatever way you want to encapsulate the extent of my fandom) does mean so much to me. Obviously it’s not a bandwagon thing; it must be something more personal, and maybe even something profound.

Unfortunately, if I am going to discover the spiritual resonance of my chosen DC Comics B-Lister, it’s probably not going to come about as a result of reading the Sleepers trilogy of novels. I read Book One earlier this month, and feel honor-bound to review it here and now. Nothing would make me happier than to say that the experience was utterly transcendental, but I gotta call it like I see it, you guys: Not. Very. Good.

Super heroes and comic books are so intertwined that people sometimes simply use one term to evoke the other, but the characters have broken out into other media early and often, in radio and tv, movie serials and summer blockbusters, and even prose novels. Superman got his first novelization back in 1942. Green Lantern: Sleepers came out in 2004 and 2005, so it’s hardly a groundbreaking combination of subject matter and format. Not even for me, personally; obviously the idea appeals to a comics fan and bibliovore like myself, and I have other novels starring Batman and Daredevil on my home library shelves as well. And yet Sleepers reads as if no one had ever before attempted the bold experiment of converting four-color panel grids into black and white unadorned letters on the page, and the end results are more than a little messy.

It turns out that maybe all of my ruminating and speculating on The Dark Knight Rises may have been well-timed for Green Lantern Month after all, because Sleepers raises its own slew of issues about super heroes as characters engaged in never-ending struggles. The trilogy of novels is (I imagine) intended to be somewhat self-contained, much like Nolan’s film trilogy. Except that almost from the get-go the story draws heavily on existing DC Comics continuity (circa the late 90’s or early 00’s), such that anyone coming into the books cold, without having read a lot of Green Lantern comic books, would probably be mystified. I think I’ve mentioned this before, but it bears repeating: Green Lantern is complicated. Over decades and decades of comics publication the story elements that have accreted around the concept are many and varied, any given one of which will be a bit of whimsical sci-fi madness making the whole enchilada a convoluted and overstuffed riot. And to the initiated, this is part of the appeal. But to the uninitiated, the barrier of entry is high.

So it’s possible that a determination was made that only hardcore Green Lantern comics fans would be likely to shell out for a Green Lantern series of novels, and therefore the target audience is expected to have an intricate knowledge of the source material’s backstory. Setting aside the ultimate wisdom of that determination, the Sleepers novel is utterly confounding because it doesn’t exactly stick to comic book continuity. So some ideas are lifted, direct and intact, from old issues of Green Lantern and dropped into the prose novel with minimal explanation, while other ideas are tweaked in a different direction or invented out of whole cloth, sometimes with attendant explanation, sometimes not. As I said about the Nolan films, I want certain story elements to change when going from one medium to another, because they have to change in order to be viable. But changing things inconsistently and randomly doesn’t exactly satisfy that condition. The end result is a story that wouldn’t make a lot of sense to someone who had never read the comics, but at the same time is needlessly confusing to someone who has read the comics. It may be that the only two people who ended up satisfied with the story on the page were Christopher J. Priest and Mike Baron, the co-authors, who told exactly the tale they wanted, using the elements of Green Lantern comics they wanted to use and also changing them at will to accommodate the plot and other considerations they had their hearts set on.

And honestly, maybe neither of the authors ended up completely satisfied either. I strongly suspect there may have been some miscommunication between the two men about some of the ideas they were trying to get across. It’s not at all strange for two comic book fans (even, I reckon, two fans who also happen to be comic book pros, as Priest and Baron are) to disagree in their interpretation of some of the more esoteric weirdness that comics traffic in. Exhibit A: Hal Jordan as the Spectre. Book One is set in a period in Green Lantern history where Kyle Rayner was the active ring-wielder; Kyle’s predecessor Hal Jordan had gone crazy, turned evil, died, and been sort-of-resurrected with a shot at redemption as the incarnation of God’s wrath known as the Spectre; and Hal’s predecessor Alan Scott was essentially retired from superheroing but still working in the news industry. All three characters are featured in the novel. At one point Kyle and Hal have a conversation in which Kyle asks Hal if he believes in God, and Hal gives a very noncommittal answer. I know I just went over this, but let me say it again: at this point Hal Jordan is literally the embodiment of God’s wrath. He has been brought back from beyond the grave by God, to work for God. That’s his whole deal, and Kyle knows this. Yet Kyle asks if Hal believes in God, and Hal isn’t sure, and they both behave as if this is the first time the idea has come up. I can’t imagine any way this scene came about other than one of the authors feeling it was crucially important to have two of the characters discuss their belief in a higher power with no easy answers, and the other author being equally determined to use the Spectre version of Hal Jordan, and neither one wanting to be a buzzkill to the other. Clearly this book needed a stronger editorial hand to mediate such problematic issues. (Not to mention a stronger copy editor. For an actual legitimately published book, the manuscript is annoyingly rife with stupid typos.)

I should have really liked this novel, because not only does it feature multiple Green Lanterns, and not only is the bulk of it devoted to Kyle Rayner (who is my hands-down favorite), but it also gives a ton of subplot time to the romantic bond between Kyle and Jade (and I am a total Kyle/Jenny-Lynn ‘shipper).

But not so much. Said subplot revolves around (1) the relationship being semi-dysfunctional, with Kyle as the tetchy jealous type and Jenny-Lynn obnoxiously commitment-phobic, and (2) Kyle finding a pregnancy test box, assuming Jenny-Lynn is pregnant (of course she isn’t really, and the ultimate explanations are super-contrived), and freaking out about both imminent fatherhood and Jenny-Lynn’s hiding it from him. Jenny-Lynn’s attitude, and Kyle’s possessiveness and rampant stupidity, are all wide of the mark as far as the usual characterization in the comics, so once again I find myself asking: why? Why these characters in these situations acting this way? Don’t get me wrong, in the abstract, a superhero with nigh-limitless cosmic powers weighing the responsibilities of parenthood against the responsibilities to defend the galaxy is interesting stuff. So is the same kind of superhero wondering if there’s any kind of higher power or plan guiding the universe and giving it some kind of meaning. But you can’t casually namecheck the story arc where Kyle became Ion with even more cosmic power and consciousness than a standard Green Lantern, thus situating your story firmly in that continuity, and then think it makes sense to have Kyle behave like a petty child for dramatic tension. Just like you can’t have Kyle sitting across from a dead guy who is now doing time as GOD’s WRATH INCARNATE and have him wonder if there really is a God. Those subplots all belong in a different story that isn’t yoked to the well-established and thoroughly explored DC universe.

It’s almost as though Priest and Baron were assigned the task of writing a Green Lantern novel and just shoehorned in whatever spare ideas they had lying around to pad out the wordcount. But my understanding is that this was a voluntary project, even a labor of love. So it reminds me of another type of labor of love: fanfic. Poorly conceived, poorly executed fanfic, really. I have a lot of experience with and strong opinions about fanfic, of course (here, here, here, here and here!), so I don’t say that lightly. But the thought recurred to me often while making my way through the novel, so I’m putting it out there for the record.

The saddest thing of all, of course, is that I’m hellbent on finishing the trilogy. Maybe not this month, since the endeavor got off to such a rocky start, but at some point. I went ahead and ordered Book Two of Sleepers before I had finished Book One (though not before I had determined it was never going to be one of my favorite books) and at some point I will get my hands on Book Three, too. I have a combination of motives at this point. Some of it is no doubt morbid curiosity, wondering how many other off-model characterizations and borrowed-yet-bent elements of DC Comics canon Priest and Baron can mash together. Some of it has to do with being a stubborn completist and collector, which includes intellectually wanting to know how the story ends and also aesthetically wanting all three books lined up together on my bookshelf. And some of it, some tiny bit illuminated by the intersection of my Green Lantern fandom and my eternal optimism, has to do with just hoping that maybe Priest and Baron pull off a miracle somewhere in the next book, or possibly even at the very end of the trilogy, where suddenly everything will click into place and have all been worth the effort. Extremely unlikely, I know, but I will give the official report either way when I get there.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Low man's lament

So I still have a major work project hanging over my head upon which I have virtually no direct influence, at least at this stage in the end-to-end process. This has been the case for weeks now, and last week I realized that things had officially reached the point where one of my major job duties is to simply accept a certain amount of passive-aggressive abuse from my superiors. Both my contracting boss and my government boss took time to ask me, fairly sarcastically, if the project was completely finished and ready to go. They both knew full well that it was not, but their sarcasm stopped just short of making the question rhetorical. So I had to provide on-the-spot status updates to each of them, which consisted of thinking of diplomatic ways of saying that nothing had changed, that other people needed to take the next round of actions and not only had not done so but had not communicated the slightest indication of when they might deign to do so. And I had to deliver this news in a way that made it sound like I was somehow doing something (deliberately ambiguous) to keep myself involved in the process and move things along.

I understand that my bosses are frustrated, because of course I’m frustrated, too. And I know that my bosses aren’t really frustrated with me, just the sluggishness of the overall process, but I’m their liaison to the process and I’m the only target to snipe at that they’ve got. And like I said, I accept that this is just another part of my job. Effluvium rolls down the chain-of-command hill, and I sit at the bottom and have to expect to take my share in stride, as part of the natural order of things.

Then today I found out that some required paperwork I had been tasked with completing for the project was incomplete. I have no idea why it took two weeks from the time I submitted it for anyone to notice this, but here we are. On the one hand I have new information for my bosses the next time they ask about the project, but on the other hand it’s not exactly great information. It’s an explanation of the delay, sort of, and it doesn’t reflect poorly on me, exactly (everyone knows I’ve never been part of a project like this before; I assumed in good faith that I had completed the paperwork fully and accurately; the only reasonable conclusion is that whoever received my paperwork didn’t bother to look at it for weeks) but still. Not great. I can only hope against hope that this will be the last major snag and things will barrel towards the finish line from here. But rolling the barrel uphill is always easier said than done.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

The lost weekend

On Friday I took the day off for a medical procedure (let’s call it the “OK three kids is really quite enough thanks” elective outpatient surgery) which had me pretty much laid up all weekend. I say this not to elicit pity in the slightest (as will become all too clear by the end of this post) because overall the entire experience was as pleasant as you could ask it to be. The business with the doctor was quick and painless (the doc was running about half an hour late, but since I had set aside the whole day I didn’t really get too bent out of shape over that) and there were no complications at the time or thereafter. I followed orders and stayed off my feet as much as possible for the subsequent 48 hours, took my painkillers and whatnot, and by last night if I had any complaint at all it was pure and simple stir-craziness, which I unhesitatingly acknowledge is a far preferable annoyance to contend with as opposed to deep physical pain or running a fever or mental exhaustion due to not being able to sleep or anything else which might have been part of the recovery process, but wasn’t.

Of course I would also be remiss if I did not point out that I was only able to coast through the recovery process due to the ministrations (toward myself, the house, and our children) of my beautiful beloved all weekend long. She insisted on feeding me a steady three-day diet of nothing but my favorite foods (both homemade and ordered in) while isolating me from the little guy and little girl as much as possible (due to their respective tendencies to show affection via swan-dive headbutting and whatnot) and also somehow managed to do the grocery shopping and get the house cleaned. Nothing short of superheroic, that wife of mine.

I did make the best of the downtime in my own self-amusing way (again, this is the part where clearly no one is supposed to feel sorry for me). Between Friday afternoon and Sunday night I managed to watch 3 episodes of Downtown Abbey, the most recent episode of Top Chef, 2 and 1/2 movies from the 1001 Master List, and a fair amount of the NFL playoffs. I also caught up on some websites and read through a good chunk of the comics reprints collections I’ve recently acquired. And I even shuffled outside for some limited playtime with the kids before all was said and done. So I should have a good bit of material to draw on for posts for the rest of the month, assuming I can mentally sort through it all and that it hasn’t all merged together into one binge-fueled blob. Here’s hoping!

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Unmellow Yellow

There was a time when my wife and I consistently referred to our daughter as “the mellow one”, at least in comparison to her unrelentingly intense brother. I’m quite sure we did this, and I could no doubt look back through the blog archives to find proof, but I’m not going to do that because it would only underline the point that what may have been true not so very long ago at all is now inapplicable. The little girl is many things these days as her personality is well and truly emerging, but “mellow” is not one of them.

The other day she was standing on the large couch in our front room (aka the defacto playroom full of both kids’ toys) and dropping down onto her diaper-padded bottom as fast as she could, then standing up again, then dropping down again, up and down, over and over. Which is not terribly noteworthy as that kind of repetitive action for its own sake is absolutely normal for a girl her age. What elevated it to something that would stick in my brain was the fact that every time she was about to drop herself down again, she would take a deep breath and shout “Yellow!” Floomp. “YELLOOWWW!” Floomp. I could not tell you how that particular word came into her head at that moment; it seems possible to me that we (her mother, her big brother and I) were talking about something yellow immediately prior, and equally possible that we weren’t and it was completely random. But apparently she just really liked the sound (or maybe the mouthfeel) of the word as pure interjection. I suppose “Geronimo” would still be a bit advanced for her.

It’s not that all the little girl does these days is run and jump and flail and generally cause as loud a ruckus as possible. Between her and the little guy (and, to be fair, my wife as well) there are numerous teddy bears in the house and the little girl loves playing “caregiver at naptime”, arranging pillows on the floor like sleeping mats and putting one teddy bear on each pillow, face down, with old receiving blankets over each of them, and she takes turns patting each one on the back. Of course, sometimes she decides a teddy isn’t in precisely the right alignment with his assigned mat, and the little girl may very well rectify this by lifting the teddy bear up over her head and body-slamming it WrestleMania-style, which may or may not rectify the original positioning problem, but certainly lets teddy know he isn’t going anywhere for a while.

So, she’s growing, and growing up. She has opinions now, and an (equally age-appropriate, unfortunately) aptitude for saying “No!” to things the first time we offer them to her, only to change her mind a second or two later once she’s established that she’s the one in control. She likes to run and climb and shout. The stage is being set for Baby #3, who will either be the loudest, craziest child yet in order to receive a fair share of the attention demanded by his two older siblings, or else … no, really, there’s no “or else”, I’m pretty sure loudest-and-craziest is the way it’s going to go down.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Loose Canon (The Dark Knight Rises, continued)

I think ultimately a great deal of whether or not a person enjoyed The Dark Knight Rises or thought it was a worthy successor to The Dark Knight came down to what the person thought of this guy:

Bane was an interesting choice for the major villain of the final piece of the trilogy, because he stands out amongst the Batman comic book rogues gallery in a couple of ways. For one thing, he’s a fairly recent addition to the mythos; most of the classic Bat-villains were introduced early on in the 40’s or 50’s, maybe 60’s or 70’s at the latest, whereas Bane is a creation of the 90’s. Plus, he’s not crazy. A huge element of the Batman narrative tapestry is Arkham Asylum, and the idea that almost all of Batman’s foes end up in the nuthouse rather than a (theoretically much more secure) penitentiary after Batman turns them over to the legal system, and then they escape, and the stories cycle over again. There’s also inherent in that the dichotomy of Batman as a sane defender of stable society contrasted against all of the bad guys as insane manifestations of chaos, while at the same time many of them (the really good ones with staying power) are funhouse mirror exaggerations of different aspects of Bruce Wayne’s own psyche, which honestly could take up an entire post in and of itself (and no doubt has on many other comic book blogs, so I’d really be expounding redundantly there). Bane clearly has issues and an incredibly traumatic backstory, but he’s never portrayed as a raving lunatic. Evil, but not crazy evil.

Unfortunately, that’s potentially problematic in the medium of film. The unavoidable counterpoint is of course going to be Heath Ledger’s performance as the Joker in The Dark Knight, which I think everyone agrees was brilliant, unhinged and unpredictable and perfect as a foil for the severe, serious and saintly Batman. Notwithstanding the concessions to physical reality necessary for transitioning from artwork on paper to performances on screen, the Joker still looked bizarre in The Dark Knight, with his muted yet odd-colored hair and face and clothes; appropriately, he looked like a supervillain, which is an unreal thing. And his personality was unreal to match. Bane is also a supervillain, and he also got a lot of bizarre trappings in his own stylized outfits and his muzzle-like mask with voice-distorter. But those were combined with a more grounded demeanor, which is very true to the comic book version of the character, but paradoxically made it harder to buy in completely to the film manifestation. Or so I assume was the case for at least some of the detractors; personally I thought Thomas Hardy was great and I really enjoyed his Bane, arguably moreso than I ever really dug the character in the comics.

The Joker is the apotheosis of Batman villains, but Bane is the ultimate Batman villain. The Joker is everything Batman is not (evil vs. good; chaos-worshipping vs. order-maintaining; insane vs. sane; brightly colored vs. dark; physically frail vs. robust; grinning vs. scowling; &c.) and you can tell just about any Batman story, from earliest days in his crime-fighting career to the twilight years, and use the Joker as the antagonist. Bane, on the other hand, is Batman (both trained their bodies and minds to peak capabilities; both dark and masked; both intensely focused and driven) with the crucial difference that Batman had a happy early childhood in the lap of luxury, then lost his parents but was still raised in wealth by an emotionally invested butler, and vowed to wage war on crime so that no one would ever suffer as he had. Bane had a miserable childhood inside of a prison with neither goodness nor light in any aspect, and vowed to wage war on society to make others suffer as he had. Oh, and one other distinction between the two weirdly parallel characters: Bane cheats. In his defining arc in the comic books, Bane actually defeated Batman, in an even more thorough way than he does in The Dark Knight Rises. Over the course of a huge storyline, Bane escaped from prison, orchestrated jail breaks in Gotham City which forced Batman to fight all of his other foes in rapid succession, and then finally once Batman was reeling and exhausted Bane confronted him physically. Bane was also amped on a sci-fi version of steroids at the time, so Bane won the fight, breaking Batman’s back. Hence my classification as Bane as the ultimate villain, in the sense of being the final one. He’s the heavy to be used in the last Batman story, when there are no more tales to tell.

In the early-to-mid 90’s, DC Comics attempted, repeatedly and with varying degrees of success, to revitalize their flagship characters (and their flagging sales) for a new generation of fans. The conventional wisdom held that characters who had been around since the 30’s, like Superman and Batman, were too stodgy and out-of-touch, whereas for example the competition like Spider-Man and the X-Men (who had been born of the more-modern 60’s) could still capture the imaginations of children because they were hip and edgy. If that sounds crass and/or altogether missing the point, it was and it did. Nevertheless, the ongoing saga of Superman reached the point where he battled an indestructible monster named Doomsday and had to sacrifice his own life to defeat the menace and save Metropolis. They milked that story literally for years, covering Superman’s last stand, death, funeral, the passing of the torch to other Supermen, and inevitably the original Superman’s return to life and resumption of his place atop the superhero pantheon. Batman/Bane played out much the same as Superman/Doomsday (and only about a year later), with the broken back serving as a metaphorical death, and it had its own passing of the torch subplot, as well, and then Bruce Wayne was miraculously healed and reclaimed the mantle of Batman. In retrospect it seems clear that DC Comics was never going to let things permanently change, such that the official history of their fictional world would read “Once there was a hero named Superman/Batman, who fought the good fight but eventually died/was crippled, and that was the end of that.” The returns of Clark Kent and Bruce Wayne were implicit from the outset, but for a (surprisingly long) while the audience was given a taste of new, extreme and in-your-face and unafraid-to-get-blood-on-their-hands versions of Superman and Batman. If those versions truly had proven popular, and there had been little-to-no reactionary backlash to them from older fans, maybe DC Comics would still be publishing their adventures today.

(If for no other reason than it’s supposed to be Green Lantern Month here and I’m going on and on about Dark Knight movies, I will point out that DC Comics did in fact put GL through almost the exact same paces as Supes and Bats, again about a year later. The storyline actually spun out of Clark Kent’s return, which coincided with an attempted alien invasion of Earth that resulted in the destruction of Green Lantern Hal Jordan’s home city. Whoops. Jordan proceeded to go crazy, turn evil, kill off most of the Green Lantern Corps, and then seemingly committed cosmic suicide. The torch, in turn, was passed to Kyle Rayner, who got a new and improved ring and became the Green Lantern with a more modern attitude. Amazingly, that whole process actually worked out well for the Green Lantern mythos; Hal Jordan eventually redeemed himself and came back, but Kyle is also still around to this day after he was the solo GL for about a decade, and Kyle is my favorite Lantern, to boot. And now you know!)

I bring up the whole 90’s-era character-killing-and-redefining trend not merely to impress you with my encyclopedic knowledge, but because I want to talk about more cross-media transitions and coincidences of consumption. I didn’t really blog about it at the time, but towards the end of last year I made my way all the way through my dvd set of Smallville Season 8. The finale of that season was broadcast in the spring of 2009, but as luck would have it I ended up watching it in close proximity to The Dark Knight Rises at the close of 2012 (which at least was the same year the movie was in theaters). And also as luck would have it, just as Bane was the villain in The Dark Knight Rises, Doomsday was the big bad of Smallville Season 8. In both cases, the character on-screen had to be changed from their comic book origins in order to meet the narrative needs at hand, mostly by way of addition; in the comics, those villains were invented specifically as terminal plot devices and were pretty one-dimensional, whereas in the film and the tv series, an attempt was made to flesh them out.

A grand coincidence indeed, but it’s still pretty easy to tell the difference between the two: Bane in The Dark Knight Rises was an example of the right way to make the transition, while Doomsday in Smallville was all wrong. In the comics, Doomsday is more of an “it” than a “him”, an experimental biological weapon of mass destruction and nothing more (and even the explanation of who invented it and why came long after the pivotal Death of Superman story). In Smallville, Doomsday was given a human (or human-seeming, Kryptonian? it all got pretty muddled, honestly) alter-ego and an unrequited-love-for-Clark-Kent’s-best-friend subplot, for maximum emo angst. That is generally the worst rap against Smallville, and Doomsday is probably the most egregious example. (I have two more seasons to go, but I’d bet money on it all the same.) I have said in the past that I acknowledge Smallville is a teen soap and is therefore all about the passionate histrionics, but this seems like a cut-and-dry case of mismatched purposes. The Doomsday concept is that the monster is the most demanding challenge Superman has ever faced, fatally so. Even once Superman realizes that it is a mindless engine of devastation and he can’t pull his punches if he hopes to save everyone in Doomsday’s path, that there’s no moral dilemma in struggling to halt Doomsday’s rampage by any means necessary, it still proves so arduous a task that it kills him. The idiots running the show latched onto Doomsday as Clark’s greatest fight and then slopped on the moral dilemma of Clark not wanting to kill Doomsday because of his human side, which just resulted in a mess. Again, for the record, I am entirely accepting of tweaks (major and minor, cosmetic or constitutional) to characters when porting them from source material to a new incarnation. It doesn’t bother me when adaptations aren’t faithful; it bothers me when the adaptation misses the point entirely and somehow makes things worse.

So, back to The Dark Knight Rises (with spoilers!!!). In the comics, there is no connection I’m aware of between Bane and the League of Shadows, no relationship between Bane and Talia al Ghul. That was invented for the film, and it may very well have been my favorite part of the entire experience. I felt like Nolan was playing two different expectations games with the audience, simultaneously. (Granted, I may be reading too much into things and giving too much undue credit, but so it goes.) On the one hand, he had to set up and execute the twist of Miranda being Talia for everyone in the audience who is not a hardcore comics fan, reminding them of how the trilogy started in Batman Begins with Ra’s al Ghul as the main villain, so that his daughter’s emergence will mean something. On the other hand, he had to make the reveal equally surprising and satisfying for the very hardcore comics fans, who know very well that Ra’s had a daughter who would be both a love interest and adversary of Bruce Wayne. I think Nolan handled this extremely adroitly, by creating new backstory for Bane involving both Ra’s and Talia, allowing him to both have his cake and eat it too.

First Bane monologues about concluding the efforts which Ra’s al Ghul set in motion to restore balance to civilization. Then, in the prison Bane comes from, Bruce Wayne learns of a child abandoned by a mercenary to be raised in the inescapable pit. The mercenary was Ra’s al Ghul, Bane has laid claim to Ra’s al Ghul’s legacy, ergo the child must have been Bane. I admit, when all of that unfolded before my eyes, my only thought was “That’s an interesting re-mixing of backstories for the movie universe.” Because at this point, so many years and years after the Superman movies and the Batman movies, Spider-Man movies and X-Men movies, I more or less expect the screenplays to juggle around elements of character’s origins if only because they can. I did not expect that kind of juggling to have an obfuscating purpose, much less dual obfuscation. To the uninitiated, the film winds up saying “This new character introduced in this movie isn’t really Ra’s al Ghul’s offspring, but this other new character is!” To the faithful, it winds up saying, “Yes, we changed Bane’s backstory, but we didn’t make him Ra’s al Ghul’s son, we made him Talia al Ghul’s protector, and Talia the abandoned child who escaped the pit, which you probably should have seen coming, but totally didn’t!” I totally didn’t, at any rate. Should have, but didn’t. And I couldn’t be happier that Nolan’s narrative trickery worked on me, because I love surprises.

So all in all, Bane was utilized as effectively as possible in The Dark Knight Rises, in my opinion, but as I said in part one, the movie was all about endings. That makes it a perfect place for Bane in the overall trilogy, but in the long run it’s always going to be the Joker who steals the whole show.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

About this whole Theme Month thing

A week of the new year has already flown by, but I am still planning on devoting some serious real estate around here to monthly themes, if for no other reason than because it amuses me to do so. If there are other reasons, they may have something to do with the fact that coalescing my pop culture consumption (and the ensuing reactive blogging) around identifiable foci allows me to delude myself into feeling like I’m accomplishing something, which is always nice.

So without further ado, allow me to preview what’s to come for the next four or five months:

JANUARY = GREEN LANTERN!

So much Green Lantern!!!

I went back and forth on whether or not to call this “Green Lanuary” but ultimately decided that was a little too awkward (even for me). Regardless! I make no secret of my fandom for all things power-ringed, but I usually try not to make everything all about Green Lantern all the time. But due to a confluence of factors (a GL animated anthology I received on Blu-ray as a gift a while ago but still haven’t managed to watch; a series of prose GL novels I ordered with some Amazon rewards points recently; various Christmas presents) I have tons of material and I’m (only somewhat abashedly!) looking forward to plowing through it all at once. If, after all this time, you tend to zone out when I get going about my favorite four-color atomic age sci-fi artifact, then consider it a blessing that I’m aggregating so much of it over the next few weeks. I’ll probably leave it for a while after that, and you can rejoin me for …

FEBRUARY = THE 20’S!

As true today as it ever was.

It seems apt to look back on the 1920’s during the one month of the year which has only twenty-something days. I believe I’ve mentioned before my general fascination with the Prohibition Era, but what’s really driving this theme month is the 1001 Movies Blog Club. As I looked over my progress on the task of watching, if not every movie on the master list, at least a broad and diverse sampling of it, I realized that the 20’s are without question my weakest decade in personal cinematic experience. Of all 40 films released between 1920 and 1929 which made the Must-See cut, I have seen … 0. Not a one! I’ve at least seen one from the previous decade, a half-dozen from the 30’s, and the numbers get steadily more robust from there (except for a weird dip in the 50’s), but the 20’s remain untouched. So I picked a few films to Netflix from the decade and plan to move them to the top of the queue for February. Once I fill in that gap a bit, it’s on to …

MARCH = PATERNITY LEAVE!

OK, this is not really a theme so much as a fact: our baby is due right around the Ides, but may very well come any time after March 1st. And rather than becoming a recurring topic for posts around that time, I expect the birth of our third child will be an occasion for the blog to go into a period of low-to-no content hibernation. It’s going to be a brave new world dealing with a pre-schooler, a toddler and a newborn all at once, and only my indefatigable optimism leads me to believe that the blog will update at all thereafter! But assuming it does, then I will pick up again with …

APRIL = BASEBALL!

God Bless the MLB.

Again, not exactly revelatory to confess my undying love for our national pastime. But, also again, I seem to have a backlog of old birthday presents (one collection of essays on the New York Yankees; one much-lauded novel about college baseball) that I might as well dig into all at once. And here is a legitimate confession: I have never seen Field of Dreams. I may very well have to correct that come April, as well. And once baseball season has been well and truly rung in (and assuming I haven’t gotten of tired of so much concentration of subject matter by then) then I can whipswitch gears again into …

MAY = ANIME AND MANGA!

Also known as Japani-MAY-tion?

Quite some time ago (like 2010), I made a resolution to investigate more deeply the artistic offerings of Japan in the formats of anime films and manga comics. Since then I’ve made some progress on that front, but neither as much as I expected nor as much as I’d like. May seems so far away right now that I’m really not sure exactly what the highlights of this theme month might be; presumably I might try to knock off the remaining volumes of Akira that I haven’t gotten around to yet, but there’s also a fair amount of anime on the 1001 Movies master list, so that’s another potential source of material as well.

And then it will be June and very nearly time for Beach Books on a Bus and/or Summer Movies on a Train, with Spooktoberfest ’13 not far behind. But at the (oft-ignored) risk of repeating myself, that’s both a long ways off and clear on the other side of the impending expansion of the brood. Still, it’s fun to make plans; what else would we laugh at in hindsight as we careen and carom wildly through the crazy days and nights ahead?

Monday, January 7, 2013

Non-optimal

This past weekend was kind of a blur which started out pleasantly enough with a trip into the city to have brunch with my brother-in-law and sister-in-law (kind of a belated Christmas get-together) on Saturday morning, but quickly descended into madness as I went out to get one flat tire on my car repaired and was informed in no uncertain terms that all four tires needed to be replaced before I became a hazard to myself and everyone else on the road within a three-car radius.

So that took unexpected hours out of my afternoon, and pushed everything else (weekly grocery shopping, housecleaning, mind-meltingly exciting stuff, I know) onto Sunday’s to-do list. And it all got done eventually, so it was from a very pragmatic viewpoint a successful weekend all in all …

… but man oh man, something I ate at some point over the weekend lodged itself very disagreeably in my gut and kept me up half the night last night. I managed to drag my carcass out of bed when the alarm went off and, despite moving very gingerly through my ablutions, caught my regular train and made it to work, where everything has settled into very standard-issue non-holiday tedium once again. Probably a fortunate thing as far as I’m concerned, as I can just sit here quietly with my head lowered over my ostensible work and concentrate on not feeling so great (lame, but I’m still trying to conserve as much leave time as possible after the Great Flu Trials of Late ’12) until it’s time to go home.

In other words, it’s the day I normally blog about work stuff but there’s not much going on around the office and I’m not exactly on top of my game to creatively work around that, so I’m taking a mulligan on this post and I will return with more scintillating subject matter tomorrow. Hopefully.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Saturday Grab Bag Super-Saturnalia!

One thing I neglected to mention in my Christmas post earlier this week was how remarkably superhero-centric a Christmas it turned out to be. Of course I'm the big comicbook fan in the family, and it showed in my pile under the tree: movies (Nolan's Dark Knight trilogy on Blu-ray); comic book reprint collections (the Justice League of America Archive Editions volumes 1 and 2); prose books about comics (Marvel Comics: The Untold Story and Why Does Batman Carry Shark Repellant?); miscellany (a Green Lantern coffee mug). The little guy also got his own share, and only some of that can be blamed on me. I got him his own Captain America action figure and a set of Avengers bed linens (the latter he specifically asked for himself; the former was just for fun). He also received some learning-to-read books, one revolving around Marvel's Super Hero Squad and another devoted to Batman. (Edit: his great-grandmother got him a rad Iron Man hoodie, too. Kinda jealous!). And the little girl was not left out, either. My Little Bro got her a Wonder Woman board book as well as the Fisher Price Little People version of Wonder Woman and her Invisible Jet. Plus, as I alluded to previously, my dad/stepmom/Very, Very Little Sis/Very Little Bro have yet to bestow their Christmas gifts upon us, so who knows what the final tally will end up being. But it's already a little bit out of control.

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Speaking of superheroes, I heard some entertainment rumors this week to the effect that this summer's Man of Steel movie is going to lay some actual groundwork for an eventual Justice League movie, which would bring together the original line-up of that legendary team: Superman, Batman, Green Lantern, Flash, Wonder Woman, Aquaman and Martian Manhunter. I'd like to say that's exciting news, but I am extremely skeptical about it.

The justification, of course, is that Marvel managed to pull off a blockbuster movie about multiple heroes united as a single team, and that not only worked out well, it became a runaway smash that everyone went crazy for. But the difference is that Marvel took their sweet time. They did a couple of Iron Man movies, and a couple of Hulk movies, with only the barest hints at something bigger. Then they did a Thor movie and a Captain America movie which were more overtly conceived as preludes to the main event, and then finally The Avengers delivered on every set-up and then some. Six movies to bring about a seventh, over the course of four years. As opposed to two movies (Man of Steel and, apparently, Green Lantern) over two years to launch a third.

A Justice League movie would also have to recast Batman, who likely wouldn't resemble the Nolan version at all. Sure, the Avengers recast Bruce Banner, but at least the CGI Hulk was still basically the standard Hulk. And Hulk had some scene-stealing moments, but he's no Batman. Aquaman and Martian Manhunter would end up being the equivalent of Black Widow and Hawkeye, good characters who would only ever be supporting players and never get a movie to themselves due to their limited recognition and appeal. But, seriously? They'd go ahead and debut Wonder Woman and the Flash in a Justice League movie without properly introducing them via their own film franchises? Seems unwise to me.

Of course, just because a formula has worked before doesn't mean it always will, and just because an unorthodox approach hasn't been tried doesn't mean it can't work. But the way this whole Justice League movie concept crumbles every way I look at it, I think the rumors I heard may have been more wishful thinking than anything else.

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Hey by the way, the NFL playoffs start today, and as I was (kinda guiltily) hoping, neither the Giants nor the Steelers are present. Here's to a stress-free, rivalry-free (as soon as the Ravens, Bengals and Redskins get eliminated) post-season!