Friday, May 31, 2013

A little off the top

I got my hair cut a week ago, since I had the opportunity to go to a Hair Cuttery near my office when we were all dismissed early last Friday afternoon due to the holiday weekend and I was overdue for a trim. Long overdue, truth be told. I know I’m outside the window of acceptable length when my wife starts casually inquiring about when I’m going to get it cut, and I’m way outside when it physically starts to bother me with ridiculous wavy-floppy flyaways tickling my forehead and whatnot.

Since summer was at hand I got more than a trim, and buzzed my hair down very short. I’ve had it shorter (and there was in fact a summer when I was in my early 20’s when I shaved my entire head down to the scalp, which was amusingly novel) but given how long I had been neglectfully allowing it to grow, the difference was still striking. So I fully expected to get a few comments at work this week, but they’ve been surprisingly few and far between. Although, as my wife pointed out, I have been working in this office for four years now and I tend to do the summer shearing every May or June, so they’re all as accustomed to it as I am at this point. I did have one colleague make two separate acknowledgements of my ‘do on two different days, but he’s new. (Also, he’s kind of a dweeb, albeit the nicest kind.)

I really thought when I started to write this all out that I had a point to make, something which would transcend a really boring and basically irrelevant personal factoid, but it seems to have escaped me. Something about age and vanity, perhaps? Clearly I’m aging since I can’t quite remember what my thought was (if I ever had one to begin with). Well, sometimes you get a gem of a random anecdote, and sometimes you get week-old to-do list remnants. Here’s to better luck next Friday!

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Good practice

My Very Little Bro, along with his serious (and recently upgraded to live-in) girlfriend, came to visit over Memorial Day weekend. He is not so Very Little anymore, really, since he turned 25 last year; we had a conversation at one point about how he’s starting to lose track of his own age and as often as not feels like he’s simply been 22 for a few years, which is a feeling to which I can most definitely relate. But he is the younger of my two younger brothers, and so they will both remain Little Bro and Very Little Bro respectively, even as VLB rushes headlong to catch up with me and LB in middle age.

VLB and his girlfriend have been together for years now, including a year or so during which my brother moved all the way to California before resuming residence on the East Coast. There’s very little doubt in my mind that those two are headed towards the altar sooner or later. VLB finally has a decent job in his chosen field with career longevity potential, and his girlfriend will be finishing her undergraduate degree at the end of the summer, so it’s really just a matter of time. Still, I took a certain amount of interest in their visit and what it might potentially represent. The drive from where they live in Massachusetts to my humble abode would normally take eight hours and change, but since they came on the Friday of Memorial day weekend it ended up being around twelve hours. In and of itself, that can be quite the endurance test for a fledgling relationship. Once they arrived (or more accurately, after they arrived and got some sleep and everyone woke up the following morning) they were pressed into familial service, holding the baby and playing with the two older kids. And that can be its own kind of relationship test, whenever two people are thinking about making a family of their own and wondering how effective their partner will prove as a child-rearing partner. Some people get a pet; some people contrive to spend time with other people's kids.

Fortunately, everything about the visit went as well as could be expected. On Saturday morning my wife had to work, and the rest of us simply stayed home. We got some fresh air in the front yard, where I sat and held the baby and talked to my presumptive sister-in-law while VLB made chalk drawings on the driveway with the little guy and little girl. In the afternoon, after my wife was home and naptime was over, there was the requisite gift-giving by which aunts and uncles thoroughly spoil their nephews and nieces. But even that did not derail the customary dinner/bath/bedtime rituals, nor the new Saturday Night Movie tradition for the little guy, so all was well.

Except of course that the baby had one of his periodic rough nights of sleep that night, so the following day my wife (who bore the brunt of sleeplessness) stayed home with the baby while the rest of us went to the National Zoo. I honestly believed that given all the other things going on that holiday weekend - a Nationals homestand, Rolling Thunder, the inherent connection between Memorial Day and the monuments on the Mall or the graves at Arlington Cemetery - that the Zoo would be a reasonably accommodating destination. But it turned out to be pretty well swarmed by visitors that day, in crowds significantly larger than the Zoo is really designed to serve. Any zoo is kind of a hit-or-miss proposition for small children even on the best of days, since there’s never any guarantee that the cool animals will be doing anything interesting, or even out anywhere visible, when you approach their enclosures. On a slow day, you can at least hang out in front of the enclosure for as long as you like until your hopes of catching a glimpse of the beast within fade entirely. When the zoo is thronging with people lining the enclosure viewing areas two or three deep, it’s much less appealing.

But then again, we were in luck because as we perused the map of the exhibits the little guy decide the thing he really wanted to see the most was the flamingos. So while certain leopards were hiding or sleeping and sloth bears were camouflaged and tucked away in bamboo stands, the flamingos were out in full force, noisily fighting over food and flapping their wings and generally making a spectacle. The little girl, for her part, was interested in the animals somewhat but more interested in being carried everywhere by her aunt, who had apparently been christened the new Best Person Ever at some point along the line. And bless her heart, my brother's girlfriend never once complained about the little girl clinging to her for hours on end.

We didn’t stay very long at the zoo, in part because we had opted to take the Metro in and that took longer than expected due to suspended service along sections of the rails which diverted riders onto buses (WMATA: Still Totally The Worst!!!). You can probably guess where this point is headed, though: the little guy was actually thrilled that he got to ride a city bus AND a subway train (he especially liked that I let him stand next to me holding a pole while the train was in motion) AND several escalators that went waaaaaay down underground, and the Metro-oriented parts of the day were as much fun as the Zoo parts, if not moreso. For her part, the little girl quite enjoyed sitting on her aunt’s lap on the bus and the train, as well. So there’s that.

And finally, on Sunday evening we had a little cookout. Nothing fancy at all, just burgers and dogs on the grill and a pot of baked beans on the side burner plus a superabundance of beers my brother was kind enough to run to the Total Wine and More to obtain (he may be a few years past 21, but he still found Total to be a place of wonder akin to Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory; for that matter, I’m closing in on 21-times-2 and I feel the same way). Memorial Day makes for a perfectly functional unofficial kickoff of summer but I always consider the season truly begun the first time I cook dinner on the grill for guests, and the two just happened to coincide this year. We were even able to eat out on the back deck, as the weather hadn’t gotten too hot (yet) and not too many bugs had hatched (yet). Oh, and there was pie, store-bought but not too shabby.

So yeah, all in all a good visit and a reasonable foundation upon which to build the expectation that my own kids will end up with some cousins sooner or later. I won’t be able to take too much credit for it if it happens, I know, even though our kids were so close to ideal behavior most of the weekend that I felt compelled to tell my brother than, all in all, I don’t really recommend anyone having three kids in a span of less than five years, because it ain’t always easy. All I know is that I am looking forward to getting to be the uncle who spoils the nieces and nephews. (My wife looks forward to her corresponding aunthood as well.) One of these days!

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

The Bomb

I bring ANIME MONTH to a close by cheating a bit and invoking MANGA MONTH, although the manga in question has been adapted as an outstanding anime film itself. I am speaking of none other than Akira by Katsuhiro Otomo, the fourth volume of which I read just last week.

At this point I am two-thirds of the way finished with the manga epic, and well past most of the story elements I’d recognize from the film. I had originally started reading Akira because it’s a modern masterpiece, not just among manga volumes but held up against anything in western comics as well, and it just seemed appropriate to have it under my belt. Plus, as fascinating as the anime film is, I thought I might understand the story a little better if I went back to the original source material. On that latter point, the end result remains to be seen. It’s still an incredibly dense and fractured and chaotic story across thousands of pages, and I have two books left to go. Maybe it will all make perfect, elegant sense when I finish the final page, or maybe the unanswerable mysteries of the movie simply echo the ambiguities of the manga. We shall see!

For a while there, I was working on this theory about a trend in apocalyptic entertainment, specifically in the 1980’s, that manifested itself especially clearly in works like Otomo’s Akira and Moore and Gibbons’s Watchmen. Basically as the Cold War progressed, the fear of nuclear war became less and less oriented on the Soviet bloc enemies and more fixated on the weapons themselves. Humanity had invented this process for destructively releasing atomic energy and built it into objects which possessed no ideology of their own, and that in itself was fairly terrifying. We might stockpile hundreds or thousands of missiles armed with nuclear warheads, but what if a warhead were stolen? Or a missile launched by accident, or by terrorist takeover of a silo, or any other scenario? If we should lose physical control of one of these doomsday devices, nothing would prevent them from being turned against us.

So from this nightmarish hypothetical arose the idea (fortunately only ever manifested in science-fiction) of weaponized human beings. The titular Akira is a little boy bred to possess psionic powers just as devastating as H-bombs, and in fact he ends up leveling Tokyo. (And then later, leveling Neo-Tokyo.) Doctor Manhattan from Watchmen is the product of an experimental accident rather than a purposeful creation, but he too has origins in government/military operations. At first glance, this seems like the answer to the conundrum. If a U.S. nuclear weapon were to fall into the wrong hands, it could be used on Washington, D.C. or any other target. But if Doctor Manhattan were to fall into the wrong hands, he presumably would not lay waste to the American capital because he himself is American. The combination of megatons of power and moral fortitude could close up a major weakness in the arms race strategy.

Of course, things never work out as planned, as all stories about nuclear armageddon are about hubris and other moral failings. Akira doesn’t need to be stolen or manipulated to destroy Tokyo, he simply can’t be controlled because he’s a willful child. Doctor Manhattan becomes so powerful that he transcends human morality (and that comes long after he transcends petty nationalism). Somehow in these stories the military and political powers convince themselves that people are more predictable and easier to control than inanimate objects, much to their eventual chagrin.

Like I said, it’s only a half-baked idea, but it remains lodged in my brain somehow. Probably because I grew up with air raid drills in the suburbs of New York City, with nuclear holocaust lurking as a very real possibility during most if not all of my formative childhood years. (If I had ever pursued some kind of masters degree in American Studies I almost certainly would have oriented my work around my morbid recollections of nuclear war in 70’s and 80’s children’s entertainment.) I bring this up now because it feels like the elephant in the room at the end of ANIME MONTH. Sword of the Stranger is set in feudal Japan, so it gets a pass, but Tokyo Story is set in the early 1950’s and Grave of the Fireflies is literally about the end of World War II, yet neither of those films really addresses Hiroshima or Nagasaki at all. I would expect that kind of literally earth-shattering event would creep into everything in the country where it happened, one way or another. Maybe it was simply too monstrous, too heinous to make any sense of. Or maybe the casualties of the birth of the atomic age were ever-present in everyone’s minds and conscious decisions were made to create art which did not directly represent it, to provide some kind of respite. Whatever the case, Otomo clearly had no problem confronting, and conveying, images of ruined and devastated cities for the sake of his story. It seems weirdly distant now, a future no longer eerily possible, only eerie. But at the time it was published, it must have been incredibly shocking.

I can remember studying World War II in high school and being indoctrinated with all of the arguments about how dropping the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were a necessity which saved lives on both sides, as the Japanese would have fought to the death and never surrendered if not for our excessive show of unstoppable force. And I can also remember near-constant warnings about how the Japanese were going to take over the world economically thanks to their work ethic of tireless dedication. Obviously that didn’t happen, which sometimes makes me wonder how the predictions could have been so wrong. Now I wonder if maybe there was a kind of collective, subconscious, unspeakable guilt at work, remorse for Hiroshima and Nagasaki and a belief that if Japan did rise again and dominate us all, that we more or less deserved it. But there’s peace between us and Japan now on all fronts, and I’m free to enjoy as much anime and manga as I can stomach. Things could be a lot worse.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

I wore the wrong shoes

Tuesday was a bit of a concentrated madness as I had scheduled my certification exam for the mid-afternoon. When I made the appointment last week this seemed like reasonable timing: the testing facility wasn’t open on the weekend or the Monday holiday, and this whole process (both obtaining the certification and the larger project it has been the most recent stumbling block within) has dragged on long enough, so the soonest available moment on the other side of Memorial Day was really optimal. And that gave me plenty of time to review the study materials and brush up on the concepts and whatnot.

Although, that in itself was easier said than done. The long, dense (and did I mention boring?) book had been hard enough to slog through the first time, and skimming over it again seemed unlikely to yield any more insight into the subject matter. Plus, I like to relax on long weekends, and double-plus we had guests in from out of town (about which more later) so the extra studying did not exactly happen. Despite the fact that the knowledge of the exam appointment was constantly near, dark and looming and more than a little intimidating.

I had recently managed to suss out that my contracting boss did in fact consider the exam prep a real job duty for me, so I felt justified in hauling out the textbook once I got to work on Tuesday morning and just sitting in my cubicle studying for the better part of four hours. After that, I had to pack up and head to the testing facility. This entailed walking back up the main drag to the Metro station, riding a few stops down the Blue/Yellow line, and walking nine or ten more blocks to the office park destination. I got there reasonably early and was able to cram in a little more studying, and then it was time to give the exam a go.

So the study book I had obtained, which is ostensibly published under the auspices of the certification board, contained nothing but multiple choice questions. The computerized exam, on the other hand, led off with several questions which were practical exercises in which there was a simulated network that needed its settings configured for certain security-specific scenarios. Since I don’t really have any hands-on experience with network set-up and was only pursuing the certification in order to be compliant with the onerous requirements of the administrators at my gig, I was ill-prepared for the first few questions on the test and as a result had a bad, bad feeling about my chances. I gritted my teeth and struggled through the practicals as best I could, and eventually they gave way to more straightforward multiple choice questions. I felt better about my grasp of the information in those, but I was still mentally calculating how and when I could re-take the exam, and for that matter how I was going to get familiar with the workaday questions which were over my head. (Also how I was going to deal with the crippling depression resulting from still being shackled to this whole boondoggle.)

I finished the exam and submitted it and held my breath and … got a little screen saying I had passed. BARELY. I did the math later and I’m pretty sure the margin above failure was half-credit on a single question. But pretty or ugly, a win is a win! I tried to keep it together and not turn cartwheels through the halls of the testing facility, and I was helped a bit in that regard by the young lady who was working as the proctor, who took the print-out of my results from the printer and handed it to me with the most uninflected and perfunctory “congratulations” the human voice is capable of producing. I understood, I’m sure her job is crushingly boring, but it did make me laugh on the inside. I was high as a kite at having escaped the terrifying jaws of defeat, but to the girl who administers dozens of tests a day, a passing score was a big whoop-de-doo.

So in the end my biggest regret was not wearing my BizCasFri shoes which are better for walking; my dress shoes ended up giving me a blister as I hiked back to the Metro after the exam. But all in all it was worth it, or so it feels today. Tomorrow I’m sure the powers that be at work will find some other reason to be unhelpful and obstructionist about my big project, now that I’ve jumped through this latest hoop for them. And so it goes and goes and goes.

Monday, May 27, 2013

Freedom Isn't Free

Always remember ...

My Little Bro, who was a Captain in the U.S. Army, freaking loves this song. Hopefully that is justification enough for posting it today.

Regular updates resume tomorrow!

Friday, May 24, 2013

Losing the War (Grave of the Fireflies)

On the cusp of the Memorial Day holiday weekend here in the States, the blog finds itself at the serendipitous intersection of the 1001 Movies Blog Club schedule and ANIME MONTH with a review of a fictionalized World War II memoir, Grave of the Fireflies. And fair warning, this is going to get into some heavy stuff because this is a thoroughly depressing movie. I’m not inclined to think that counts as a spoiler, as you may be aware that Japan did not fare especially well in the Second World War; more to the point, Grave of the Fireflies begins with its main character reflecting on the day he died, and meeting the spirit of his younger sister, before embarking on an extended flashback, so the structure of the story gives away its own ending. Still, I think it’s appropriate to give people a chance to turn away now if the youngest victims of war are not something you care to dwell on today.

(By the by, have I mentioned that back when I came up with the idea of doing ANIME MONTH on the blog I thought maybe it would entail picking up the first box set of Battle of the Planets and revisiting the unsupervised afternoons of my youth spent watching goofy foreign action-adventure cartoons on local tv? But then I decided buying those DVDs was an indulgence I should skip, and I dialed it back to a few Netflix rentals. The profound mood shift was something of an unintended consequence.)

Grave of the Fireflies doesn’t have any particularly unreal sequences which could only be realized as anime, but it’s still well-served by the art form due to the level of abstraction that the imagery is able to achieve. There’s a repeating motif of tiny, glowing light sources in the air, varied by color. The blue-green palette is used for the fireflies, while the red palette comes into play for the firebombs dropped by U.S. warplanes and the embers and ashes that swirl in the wind as villages burn. The contrast of ideas could not be more stark, but the images mirror each other nevertheless, in a way that it’s hard to imagine working quite so well, or so hauntingly, in a live-action (with or without CGI) context.

That’s my big praise-point for the movie. My biggest gripe with it is, to a certain extent, my own fault. I’m often torn when watching anime as to how I should approach the dialogue: original Japanese with subtitles, or overdubbed in English? I’m a fast enough reader that I don’t particularly mind subtitles, and to a certain extent the purist in me knows that the original soundtrack is likely to have emotional nuance more true to the director’s vision, which I can pick up in tone of voice as I scan the translations. But given a choice I tend to find the narrative experience more immersive if the characters are speaking English. That’s the route I went with Grave of the Fireflies, but that might have been a mistake, if only because they cast an adult woman as the four-year-old Setsuko, doing what may very well be the most annoying babytalk voice ever recorded. I was tempted to watch the movie again in Japanese to see if the original actress was less grating, except that this is one of those films that is so depressing that I could never bring myself to watch it again.

The death of innocence is an unavoidable fact of life, and I get that, but it’s a brutal one as well, and while it’s important to acknowledge reality and not hide from the unpleasant aspects of it, it’s still incredibly difficult to meditate on grief and despair. Especially when the grief and despair is brought on not by the unpredictable nature of an unknowable, uncontrollable universe, but by man’s inhumanity to man, waging war that mindlessly cuts down civilians in the crossfire. And when you increase the sense of suffering by illustrating it with the gruesome death by starvation of a very young girl, the experience is utterly harrowing. There are important distinctions within the human concept of innocence’s impermanence. When children grow up into adults and lose their wide-eyed wonder, it’s sad but inevitable, part of the order of things, and we grapple with it as best we can. When children don’t grow up at all because they die very young, it strikes us a violation or order, and there’s virtually no way to find meaning in it. If you judge art by its ability to provoke an emotional reaction, then Grave of the Fireflies is powerful, transcendent art. It also ceases to be entertainment after passing a certain threshold of awful reckoning, but maybe not everything is supposed to be entertaining.

I have a deep and abiding affection for the book A Staggering Work of Heartbreaking Genius by David Eggers. I’ve met other people who loved it, as well as people who hated it, but fundamentally I identify with the emotional core of the book. My relationship, and for that matter relative age difference, with my Very Little Bro is similar to the one between David and his brother Topher, notwithstanding the fact that David winds up the nominal guardian of Topher when both his parent succumb to cancer, whereas both my parents are still alive and well, merely divorced. Still, even before I ever read Staggering Work I was not immune to the occasional morbid fantasy of having to become my baby brother’s caretaker if we were suddenly orphaned. Obviously the connection here is that Grave of the Fireflies is also about an older sibling taking care of a much younger one when their parents are absent, but in Grave of the Fireflies things are ultimately simplified. The older brother never feels resentful of the responsibility fate or circumstance has imposed on him. He never loses his temper with his little sister, never shows her anything but unconditional love. And yet she dies anyway. Maybe it’s an eastern thing, and difficult to square with my western sensibilities, but it seems unbearably grim to depict that kind of saintly, unwavering love in its failure to conquer all (even without my propensity for overidentification with protagonists assuming responsibility for much younger siblings). I can understand a story where the caretaking takes its own toll until the main character explodes and lashes out at the younger sibling, which in turn has disastrous consequences, and the moral of the story is that even when life seems unfair you have to love and be kind to those who mean the most to you or you’ll regret it when it’s too late. But in Grave of the Fireflies, the moral seems to be that even if you do nothing wrong, you can still suffer immeasurable, ruinous loss.

I always try to do a little bit of background research on movies between the time I finish watching them and the time I start blogging about them. One of the more interesting factoids I ran across was that Isao Takahata, who adapted and directed the film, actively resisted the classification of Grave of the Fireflies as an anti-war film. This basically blows my mind. It’s a story about a fourteen-year-old boy Seita and his four-year-old sister Setsuko. At the beginning of the flashback, early in 1945, their father is serving on a Japanese naval vessel. A bombing raid on their village grievously injures their mother, and she dies shortly thereafter. The children go live with a distant relative, who slowly but surely becomes more bitter and resentful toward the children because they are two extra mouths to feed in a time of rationing and other wartime deprivations. The children run away and try living on their own in a nearby bomb shelter, first by trading their few possessions for food (though very few people have surplus to trade, due to the war), then by stealing unharvested crops (often rotten or moldy), and ultimately by withdrawing their mother’s life savings to buy a meal. Just as he gets the money from the bank, Seita is horrified to find out that the Empire has unconditionally surrendered, and his father is most likely dead as the Japanese fleet has been almost entirely destroyed. He gets back to Setsuko just before she slips into a coma. She dies of malnutrition, and shortly thereafter Seita dies of a broken heart.

Clearly Takahata did not turn the novel into a pro-war movie by any-stretch, but apparently he thinks that within the story of the film the war is beside the point. I couldn’t disagree more. As I said above, the terrible things that befall the siblings - losing their father, their mother, their home, their innocence and their lives - are not their fault. But they can all be traced back to the war, and in short, straight lines at that. How anyone could view Grave of the Fireflies without seriously questioning if there’s anything that can ever justify war, I simply don’t know. The whole film is a reminder that there’s a reason why War is considered the first of the Horsemen of the Apocalypse. It doesn’t simply affect balances of power or political boundaries, it destroys lives (and far more lives than those of young men called to the front lines) and sometimes entire ways of life. And at least half the time, any war fought by any group of people is ultimately a futile effort when that group is defeated. The cost of war is appallingly high when the cause is righteous and its aims are achieved. When the final cost is the same if not greater but the aims are forsaken? That seems like a horrific, noxious joke.

But the fact that jokes like that shouldn’t be told doesn’t mean that they aren’t, and every now and then pausing to contemplate them can be a worthwhile part of our experiences in this life. There’s a danger in becoming so complacent that we let ourselves forget the suffering of others. I don’t advocate spending every waking moment bemoaning the fate of every child who’s an orphan of war or something equally miserable. But ignoring the ugly and uncomfortable aspects of the world around us is no answer, either. I’m still working on what exactly the answer is, but I’m pretty sure it’s not that.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Magic number

There are weeks when it seems like all of my kids are doing so much and changing so fast that sparing just one day on the blog to talk about it feels woefully insufficient. And then there are weeks that seem more like holding patterns, where despite the fact that every moment of every day is full of joy and wonder there’s nevertheless a lack of major milestones, or at least a lack of thematic cohesion that easily suggests the structure of a post. This week is kind of like that. The little guy has his big year-end performance at Montessori tonight, and then exactly four more days of attendance (tomorrow, next Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday) before he says goodbye to that program forever. He’s excited enough about kindergarten (or “zero grade” as he calls it) to be pleasantly good-natured about finishing out the Montessori year (since we’ve pitched it to him as basically a pre-requisite for real school - it isn’t! but he totally doesn’t need to know that!). Yesterday our new babysitter had her first full day on the job with the little girl and the baby, and everything went happily without incident. Afterwards, as I had to get all three kids fed and put the other two to bed, the little girl had a complete meltdown (mostly wondering where mommy was, exacerbated by the fact that she is so, so very two years old right now) but I think she’s going to recover. And the baby had a nice, long uninterrupted period of deep sleep in his own bed last night, so that’s an encouraging sign of the light at the end of the newborn tunnel.

You don't mess with a gypsy, man.

I was half-joking with a friend recently that my wife and I had just started contemplating the various things we could reintegrate into our lives as our two children got a little older, more self-sufficient, able to make overnight visits with their grandparents, &c. … and then we discovered we were expecting a third, and the clock was reset and everything not child-rearing-centric was pushed back again. And I know that’s a supremely petty way of looking at things, considering how completely enthralled we are with all of our children and how right it feels to be living that child-rearing-centric lifestyle with all three of them at the heart of it. It is funny, though, how quickly we’ve readjusted in just two short months. My wife and I never expected to have three kids, after all; early on we daydreamed about having four and later we quickly decided that two was a very sane place to stop, but three never crossed either of our minds. Still, my wife visited a few palm readers and fortune tellers in her life, who always told her that she would have three children. She generally dismissed these specific predictions as all part of the show, something that sounds good because it’s unusual. Yet here we are now, three little ones under our roof and completely unable to imagine our lives any other way. Funny, funny, funny.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

And things left unsaid (Tokyo Story)

Not a cartoon, but somewhat in keeping with the cultural milieu of ANIME MONTH, is Yasujiro Ozu’s Tokyo Story, which was group-reviewed earlier this year for the 1001 Movies Blog Club. I’m playing catch-up (as I am wont to do).

Honestly, Tokyo Story is about as far away from anime as you could possibly get. Anime is all about impossible ideas with strong fantasy or science-fiction components, given life in a restlessly dynamic style with an attention to detail that grants everything on screen a hyper-realism despite the fact that what’s being shown would be physically impossible to capture on film. Tokyo Story is a quiet family drama in black-and-white (by which I mean monochrome celluloid, not the issues at play within the story), sedately paced and shot in a way that makes it seem as if the cameras were bolted to the floor. Needless to say, this is not exactly my bailiwick.

But I can appreciate great achievements outside of my comfort zone and Tokyo Story is a magnificent and enduring work of art (in the most recent Sight & Sound poll of greatest films of all time, Tokyo Story was number 3 right after Vertigo and Citizen Kane). What seems stripped down and simplistic at first glance is actually a meticulously crafted examination which maximizes insight and impact. Tokyo Story is a humble, human-level tragedy but really, isn’t that exactly what life is, too?

The exact nature of the tragedy seems to be twofold: first, that people tend to take their own family members for granted, particularly the adult children of elderly parents; and second, that people allow this to happen by never really speaking honestly to one another about how they feel. The first part is demonstrated in everyday ways again and again throughout the film, but best embodied in the character Shige, the oldest daughter. Credit should probably be shared equally between the script and the actress for portraying Shige as simultaneously a believable, three-dimensional person and the most horrid offspring imaginable. In a scene early on the movie, Shige’s husband comes home and tells his wife that he picked up some cakes for his visiting in-laws. Shige scowls that he should have just gotten them less expensive crackers. Her husband counters that her parents had crackers the day before, and she counter-counters that that’s fine because they like crackers. Eventually, Shige is eating the cakes herself and continuing to complain that they are too great a luxury for her parents.

The audience never gets to see if the parents, Shukichi and Tomi, received any of the cakes at all, but we know that they would have expressed happiness and thanks for either the crackers or the cakes, or simply for time spent with their children and grandchildren. Over the course of the film, as the camera follows Shukichi and Tomi in and out of the orbits of their urbanite children, we see them ask for very little and provide unending support and understanding in the presence of their children, but admit that they want so much more whenever the sons and daughters are out of earshot. There are only a few times when the elders of the Hirayama family speak from the heart to their relatives, usually involving the good-hearted widowed daughter-in-law Noriko. (Although a scene in which Tomi confesses her fears to her youngest grandson, who is innocently playing and either doesn’t hear her or doesn’t understand, is the most quietly devastating.) One of the inherent beauties of the film is the way it allows both the private feelings and the brave faces of the parents to occupy different scenes, so that we become acutely aware of the painful gaps to which the Hirayama children are all but oblivious.

I usually don’t get down into the nitty-gritty technicalities of things like shot composition in my film reviews, but the stark approach employed by Ozu really can’t go by without acknowledgment. The camera angle is almost always at floor-level on wide shots (see above re: humble, human-level) and yet so many of the scenes are deeply layered, with household objects closest to the lens at either side of the frame, and characters and interior walls at varying distances. The visual layout keeps the audience at something of a remove from the characters by making us all too aware of the barrier(s) between us and them. And the edges of doorways and bookcases and floor levels all create boxes within boxes, subliminally reinforcing the various ways in which the characters are all trapped, in their familial dynamics, in their social roles and responsibilities, in their rigidly formal interactions, in their expectations, and on and on. The temptation is strong to tell a story about a family drifting apart only to find their bonds strengthened, their perspectives altered and the sense of perspective restored when a death in the family occurs. But Ozu is not telling that optimistic a story. He depicts a family which remains exactly the same before and after a potentially transformative moment, holding the same inexorable patterns along the same straight lines. The train plays a significant part in Tokyo Story; unsurprisingly, the Hirayama family runs on iron rails themselves.

Tokyo Story was written and produced during a transitional period of massive societal upheaval in Japan, less than ten years after the end of World War II, and Ozu makes impressive use of establishing exterior shots to contrast the differences between the country and the city, the past and the present becoming the future. Village rooftops, city skylines, newly constructed smokestacks at factories and ancient, worn stone markers at temples, all attest to the widening gulf between Onomichi and Tokyo. But the themes of Tokyo Story are universal and timeless. We could all be better people, and most people admit this and even aspire to it, but it is astonishingly hard even in the most fundamentally important areas of our lives. Moreover, it’s not only hard for the people (like Shige) who obviously fall short, it’s hard for the people (like Noriko) who seem to be succeeding. Tokyo Story observes all of this. It may not give any answers that make bettering our relationships easier, but it gives us the reassurance that, in our struggles, none of us are alone.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

TUESDAY BONUS: Alternate Contenders (Part 2)

I promised you guys ten movies I’ve seen and enjoyed and which I’d recommend that others see (and hopefully enjoy) which you wouldn’t encounter in the pages of 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die. I already got my discursive disclaimers out of the way in the post covering the first half of the list, so here come the back five:

6. Rollerball (1975)

You may or may not have noticed that my personal list of non-canonical movies had 200 entries, but I’ve been referring to it as 200+. Rollerball is the reason, because on separate occasions I willingly sat down to watch one version, then the other, and thus the (both) after the title. Make no mistake, the 21st-century remake of this flick was pretty dire. But that doesn’t mean the source material isn’t any good, hence I’m specifying the 1975 original. I watched this movie with some friends one night in high school and I was immediately taken with it. It’s one of those dystopian science-fiction movies that didn’t require a big budget because it simply extrapolates on current trends until it ends up in nightmarish territory. Some of Rollerball’s predictions look quaint now (they looked quaint in 1991, too) especially the “futuristic” fashions. But in terms of big concepts like celebrity culture, professional sports, corporate greed and mob mentalities, it’s still incredibly relevant.

7. The Secret of NIMH

I intended this alternates project to be more of a dialogue with the Master List, not an argument, but in this particular case I cannot for the life of me understand how this movie is not already in the books. It’s an animated children’s movie, but there are plenty of those on the list, mostly Disney films (obviously). The director of The Secret of NIMH, Don Bluth, was a Disney animator who broke away to form his own production studio, which I think was kind of a big deal historically in and of itself, just showing that the House of Mouse’s dominance in the arena could be challenged. How many times in your life have you heard “Somewhere Out There” from An American Tail? (That, along with “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”, is one of the lullabies I’ve sung to all my kids when I get bored with Brahms.) How many sequels upon sequels to The Land Before Time have you seen in the kid-video sections of stores? Those are all Don Bluth joints, and The Secret of NIMH started it all. And it’s a fantastic movie, gorgeously rendered, action-packed (I came very close to including Justin the Rat in my childhood heroes dream team), based on a classic children’s novel, and maybe best of all the hero and main character is a mom. I’d love to share this movie with my kids, when they’re ready; as it stands now, between the fierce barn cat named Dragon, the terrifying Great Owl, the vicious in-fighting among the rats and the children-in-peril climax, if I tried to get the little guy to watch it he would be traumatized. But when he’s eight I bet he’ll love it.

8. Spider-Man 2

Finally, a superhero movie!!! And not only that, but a superhero sequel, which (The Dark Knight notwithstanding) is usually a rightly reviled, unfortunate byproduct of the Hollywood system. But in this case, it’s more of an Empire Strikes Back kind of situation. Sam Raimi’s first Spider-Man movie is very good, and not a flick I would mind sitting down and re-watching at all. But it hews very close to some major milestones from the original comic books: Spidey’s origin and his final showdown with the Green Goblin (both cinematically compressed by necessity). Spider-Man 2 builds on the origin story and gets immeasurably better by exploring more themes and ideas that the first installment simply didn’t have time for. And the Doctor Octopus storyline isn’t so much a recreation of a specific run of issues from the comics, but a synthesized take on the character that makes sense for the movie. (And Alfred Molina is amazing as Otto Octavius, it goes without saying.) I remember getting goosebumps in the theater the first time I saw the trailer for Spider-Man 2 (in front of Return of the King, maybe?) and the movie itself did not disappoint. It’s really what everybody says they want in a blockbuster: big spectacle and thrills but also genuine emotion. It’s the spiritual predecessor of the current crop of exceptionally good Marvel movies like Iron Man and Captain America.

9. Starship Troopers

I’ve actually blogged about this before, although my focus that time was on the original Heinlein novel. But I have no shortage of love for the film it inspired! At this point we are veering strongly back into the dumb-movies-for-boys territory I've staked out previously. Still, there’s a ferociously sharp satire lurking beneath the late-90’s CGI effects and all the other shiny blockbuster trappings. Starship Troopers is simultaneously an action movie about interplanetary war, a statement movie about the politicization of war, and a wicked parody of pop culture’s glorification of war. So by my reckoning it’s a movie about movies, and should have at least been nominated for an Academy Award. (Except of course that it does not exactly put forth an unambiguous “movies are great, yay!” kind of message. All the more reason to see it, though.)

10. Team America: World Police

The 1001 List features some movies about puppets (Pinocchio) and movies featuring some sequences of puppetry (Being John Malkovich) and even movies with puppet characters acting alongside human actors (The Muppet Movie, The Empire Strikes Back). But how many movies on the master list are performed entirely by puppets? NONE. This is a terrible oversight given the existence of Team America: World Police, which is of course Matt Stone and Trey Parker’s infamous savaging of the opposing yet equally indefensible post-9/11 worldviews. And just like Rollerball, what was devastatingly insightful when the movie first came out is every bit as applicable today. I know that Parker and Stone’s sensibilities and sense of humor are not for everyone, but you have to admit their total output represents a tremendous pop culture phenomenon. South Park has been on tv just about my entire adult life, The Book of Mormon is an acclaimed Broadway smash, and in many ways even their flameouts and failures (Orgazmo, That’s My Bush!, Cannibal! The Musical) have been objects of fascination. Team America: World Police is furiously trenchant but it is also hilarious. I saw it in the theater with a bunch of my buddies and we absolutely howled through the entire thing. Probably that’s the best way to experience it, on the big screen with a group of rowdy 29-year-olds, and I understand that option may not be readily available. But any approximation you can manage would be worth the effort. Me, I might just have to bust out my DVD copy this Memorial Day weekend for a re-watch. You know, for the troops.

So that's my list! (Or sub-list, I guess!) Hopefully all of this has provided some food for thought. There's one more thing I'd like to touch on before abandoning the topic altogether, and that's which movie from my personal list of 200+ would be the absolute last film I'd want added to the 1001 List, the one I would actively warn people away from. But that will have to be a post for another day!

Social calls

Kind of a quick counterpoint to Friday’s post: my family and I went to a cookout at my buddy Clutch’s house this past weekend, at which a good time was had by all. My wife got to relax by way of handing the baby off to other moms, and the little guy got to eat watermelon and jump on a backyard trampoline, so he was basically in heaven. The little girl was a tad shy and clingy, but that’s completely understandable for a two-year-old. I, on the other hand, wasn’t feeling shy at all, as the mutual friends in attendance whom I’ve known for decades far outweighed the neighbors and friends and co-workers of Clutch’s wife who were strangers to me.

What struck me, in a weird bit of (rare!) self-awareness, was how loud and animated (but mainly loud) most of my conversations with my friends got. We were talking about stupid stuff (like the current Doctor Who series and whether or not there will ever be a live-action Flash movie) yet I managed to find myself yelling things that probably did not strictly speaking need to be yelled. I didn’t quite reach the point of completely embarrassing myself (I don’t think) but I did surprise myself at least once or twice.

In hindsight, it occurred to me that nowadays I split my time between home and work pretty much exclusively. At work I make every effort not to be an annoying co-worker and not to draw undue attention to myself, and that means being extremely tight-lipped more often than not. At home, I have a two-month-old whom I try not to startle as he dozes through each day, plus a toddler and a (near-)kindergartner for whom I try to set a good example of bare-minimum decorum and self-control, or at least indoor voices. I don’t necessarily think that, left to my own devices without other overriding concerns, I would tend to live with the volume knob constantly twisted far to the right. It just had been a really long time since I’d been able to crank it up, and apparently I had a fair number of decibels all saved up.

Monday, May 20, 2013

More and more of the same

So I finally finished reading the stupid textbook for my stupid certification exam. Now I just have to figure out how to jump through the hoops of actually getting certified, which apparently involves purchasing an exam voucher from one company and then contacting a separate testing provider and scheduling a time to come take the exam under controlled conditions and then waiting to get my results back (and doing it all over again if I fail to get the 84% correct answers that constitutes a passing score). It is a racket, I tell you.

In the mean time, I still have yet to attend a staff meeting since I got back from paternity leave. A week or two ago I made use of one of the little tricks I’ve picked up over the years: as the lone techie guy around these parts, sometimes I volunteer to submit “periodic” reports on how our in-house web applications are being utilized, with statistics and trend analysis and all that. They are fairly easy to generate and make it look like I am keeping busy. The periodicity of the reporting tends to be entirely determined by how often I feel like I need to justify my continued existence or remind people that I still work here. So I sent one of those reports to my government supervisor the same afternoon that the third staff meeting in a row got cancelled. She thanked me for it (via e-mail from parts unknown), so that’s a good sign.

Of course it was not too long afterwards that I attended our department’s very first meeting with newly installed boss’s boss, where somehow an introductory meet and greet (with free bagels and scones) turned into a spirited discussion of the future online collaboration needs for the agency, which brought up some of the underutilized projects that I’ve been working on around here for years. So suddenly I am a key player in some hotly contested areas, or so it felt in the heat of the moment. There’s a tendency for these things to be fiercely debated in the moment, until someone takes it upon themselves to look into what should be done about the issue, and then interest dissipates and the status quo reasserts itself as everyone gets distracted with their primary duties once again. Maybe I’ll have some new big project to pivot to after I get my certification and finish the old big project. Time will tell.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Saturday Grab Bag Na-na-na-na

After Tuesday's first post went up, my wife informed me that our school system does not, in fact, indifferently leave families high and dry if a school-aged child is deemed not quite ready for kindergarten. Apparently there are other official remedial programs designed to get a five-year-old up to speed (and, presumably, keep those knee-biters off the streets). I wanted therefore to walk back a bit of my low-level indignation from earlier. I am less outraged about hypothetical situations that might befall other people!

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Speaking of the little guy, we are continuing with his weekend Movie Nights but he has been opting lately to re-watch movies he already owns rather than trying new ones. Honestly that's fine with me (I can certainly understand the comfort-level impulse), and it makes things logistically easier as well, as I'm not juggling the Netflix queue or blowing money on new Blu-rays or anything. Last weekend he finally re-watched Cars 2, having not seen it all the way through since I took him to the theater for the first time in his life, despite the fact that I bought it for him on DVD shortly thereafter. I've been a defender of Cars 2 in the past, acknowledging that it's not Pixar's finest film; every list has to have something in the bottommost position, but that doesn't mean it still can't be a list of good things end-to-end. I feel like people slagged Cars 2 unfairly because it really seemed like a calculated cash-in, and of course prominently featured Larry the Cable Guy, an easy target for any self-proclaimed aesthete. But, uh, yeah, on second viewing Cars 2 really did not hold up. I still don't think it's as bad as some people wail that it is, but there are countless better ways to spend two hours.

But despite diving back into his long-standing Pixar/Disney collection, the little guy is still thinking and talking about Toy Story a lot. Which makes me meditate on it, as well. Another thing that occurred to me is that Woody, given the way he lords over the other toys and always tries to keep them all focused on a very focused philosphy of their existence as Andy's playthings and what he interprets that to mean, is very much like a charismatic cult leader. Which is a turn of phrase my wife and I use to describe the little guy all the time, so his affinity for the Sheriff just kind of makes perfect sense.

(Just the other night at bedtime my wife picked up a Disney storybook and asked the little guy "Do you want me to read you a Toy Story story?" and he answered "No, I don't like Toy Story stories I only like Toy Story movies because 'Toy Story story' is too hard to say!" That made me laugh.)

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For a while there in the early-mid 00's, my geeky buddies and I were going to comic book conventions regularly, by which I mean about once a year. The rapid growth of my family in the past half-decade has curtailed that somewhat, but I'm still on the electronic mailing lists for several of these events. It's fairly amusing to me, because it seems that the major thrust of these direct-message marketing strategies is to e-mail former attendees every time an upcoming convention books a single celebrity personality for an appearance. On the one hand, I could care less about the personalities at the conventions. I have never stood in line for (much less paid for) an autograph or photo op, and while I acknowledge that walking through an exhibit hall and seeing an actress from a show I used to kinda like prompts a positive response in me (along the lines of "oh, neat"), those moments are far down the list of Reasons Why I Would Go To A Comic Convention, below such entries as browsing dealers' collections for old comics, buying cheap toys on the last day when the dealers are trying to unload stock, getting insider news about upcoming projects, people-watching the cosplayers, picking up free swag, and of course hanging out and bonding with my buddies.

But the other, more ridiculous aspect of the strategy is that it attempts to cast a wide net one loop at a time. Comic conventions have evolved to address a broad array of interests, some only tangentially related to comic books in the sense that geeks who are into the X-Men tend to also be into genre tv shows and video games and whatnot. But just because there's a high likelihood that a convention attendee might also dig horror movies doesn't mean that an appearance by the guy who played Jason in the Friday the 13th movies is going to be a big draw for many specific people. It makes sense to gather lots of different appeals to different niche audiences under one roof, and it would even make sense to me to hit the marketing mailing list with a full list of celebrities scheduled to attend, from the comics writers and artists to the washed up actors still milking the fact that they were on a hit show once, to the active pro-wrestlers and the chicks whose sole claim to fame is being the live model for the covert art for a fantasy MMORPG. Somewhat less sensible (to me) is e-mailing the entire list with the announcement that the actor who played Tommy the Green Ranger is going to be at the con. Which, I swear, is an actual e-mail I received this week, and not some implausible reductio ad absurdum I dreamed up to make this point.

He's fresh off breaking the Guinness World Record for number of boards broken with a karate chop while skydiving (seven! and I'm still not making this up!) so, at least I learned something. And so have you, you're welcome.

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I know I still haven't posted anything about the end of Community's fourth season (I'm working on it, I've got a lot to say about it (SHOCKER) and it might very well turn into a week's worth of posts or something, and it's not like I don't have plenty of time since season five will be a mid-season replacement at best) BUT did you know that my wife and I were also regular viewers of The Office and we hung in there until the bitter end and tuned in for the series finale this week? All true. There seems to be some divided opinions out there on teh interwebs as to whether or not Steve Carrell's cameo as Michael Scott was appropriately scaled or a squandered opportunity. So, for the record: appropriate! I'm in the camp that believes the show probably should have ended when Michael Scott left for Colorado, but given the fact that they kept going for two more years, the finale was much better served focusing on the other characters, both major and minor, than being overwhelmed by a Michael-driven plot, subplot, or even a runner. It would have been weird to wrap up the series without Carrell, but the amount of screentime and dialogue he got was perfect: one last "that's what she said" and one last bizarre and inappropriate talking head about his relationship to his (former) employees, plus an indication that he and Holly did in fact have their kids-and-a-picket-fence happy ending. Works for me.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Halfway out of my shell

Today I managed to forget my building badge, so I'm more or less chained to my desk. I had tossed my badge on top of my work bag on the passenger seat of my car last night, but on the drive to the train station this morning I decided to make a quick sidetrip for gas (since I was running on fumes) and then when I finally got to the parking garage I rushed to gather my stuff and get out to the platform. The badge of course slid off the top of my workbag, but not into it, so when I grabbed my bag and nothing else, the badge got left behind.

Fortunately I had a few lunches stashed in the office kitchen and I wasn't planning on running any other errands today, so limited freedom of movement is a drag, but not a huge one. I called one of my colleagues to come down to the security office and escort my visitor-badged self up to our suite, and she obliged me. When we got into the elevator together in the lobby, she asked me if I had any big plans for the upcoming holiday weekend, and I said no, because my wife has to work that Saturday and also because we're too wiped out keeping up with the newborn's needs and the other two kids' insanity to plan or do much of anything. And then we got to another floor and some people got off and others got on and my colleague and I were physically separated and our conversation was cut off, before I had a chance to ask her if she had big plans.

I felt bad, which was magnified by my acute awareness that this is probably one of my biggest social challenges, remembering to turn questions back around to the asker. Which is shameful for a functioning adult, but it is a constant struggle. I sometimes enjoy telling people that I was very shy as a child, because the vast majority of people find that impossible to believe, which at least lets me know how far I've come. Nevertheless, I was painfully timid once upon a time, at least with strangers (or really anyone who wasn't a member of my immediate mom-dad-Little-Bro family or a close friend), and to this day all I've done is close the gap somewhat between the ease I feel with people I'm extremely comfortable with and the unease I feel with people I'm not.

My parents were usually willing to let my shyness slide, except for certain cases, e.g. when we would go visit my grandparents, who were lovely people but nevertheless fell under the heading of not being part of my daily life, and therefore just as likely to trigger all these irrational fears that they wouldn't want to hear anything I had to say, wouldn't understand my point of view, &c. &c. But of course my folks would find it distressing that they made the however-many hours trip in the car to get the extended family together, and my grandparents would want to interact with me, and I would defensively refuse. So my parents made it their mission to convince me that my grandparents really did want to hear my voice and that I could talk about anything, because it had nothing to do with what we were talking about and everything to do with simply talking. And slowly but surely that sunk in.

So for a long time, when I started getting a little more confident in myself and a little less intimidated by brand new situations and first impressions and all that, I would allow myself this elated sense of pride for managing something as simple as answering a direct question with a direct answer instead of a nervous shrug, and bonus points if I elaborated on the answer unprompted. Somehow I got stuck in that feedback loop so much that it was years and years before I realized that conversation is not just you-ask-I-answer any more than it's you-ask-I-try-to-disappear. All well and good that I can field a small talk inquiry without freaking the hell out, but so much more socially acceptable to volley you-ask-I-answer-I-ask-you-answer back and forth.

Ah, well. Just another thing to vent about on the blog and then try to work on in the real life, I suppose.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Flat out impossible

The little girl has recently been cracking me up when we sit down together to read one of her picture books. We'll be going along from page to page and then we'll come across an illustration of something desirable to her, like a cupcake or a doll, and she will try to pick that thing up off the page and out of the book. In the cases where it's something to eat, she will then pantomime shoveling it in her mouth with lusty lip-smacking sounds. But then, she'll try a couple more times to grab the picture, all the while saying* to me "Can't do it! Can't take things out of books!"

(* This is entirely a side-issue, but the little girl is still in the communication borderlands between baby talk and fully recognizable speech. And yet the vast majority of the time I feel like I know what she means and what she's trying to say, so much so that my brain just kind of auto-translates things and later, like right now, if I try to transcribe what actually came out of her mouth, I find it extremely hard to do so. I know that it was some mixture of fast-cadence sounds in the zigga-digga-zooba phoneme family with actual words like "can't" and "book" but an exact reproduction eludes me. So forgive me for the shorthand.)

The thing is, she doesn't say this as a complaint, or even as a question aimed at something she doesn't understand. She has accepted this as a facet of reality, and it's more like she and I are sharing a little joke, like she's doing a little philosophical observational stand up comedy: "Ya ever notice how the representations of objects are not the objects themselves?"

I don't know why I find this so funny (above and beyond my love of surrealism, and of my daughter). But I love that she is perceptive, and I love that she is a hoot.

I do wonder about her perspective on lots of things, of course. Yesterday, for the first time, I went through the process of taking care of all three children by myself in the evening while my wife was at work. It was supposed to be the first day where I left for work in the morning, the babysitter came over to the house, my wife left the two younger kinds with her while dropping off the little guy at daycare on her way to work, and then I would come home in the afternoon, pick up the little guy, and relieve the babysitter. Unfortunately, there was a bit of a miscommunication/misremembering and the babysitter thought we wanted her on Thursday this week rather than Wednesday, so what ended up happening was the little guy did not go to daycare, my wife stayed with the kids until I was able to come home early, and then my wife went in to work late.

None of that was too big a deal, but it did give me the opportunity to take all three kids outside to play for a while, as opposed to having to jump right into the cook/serve dinner, baths, bedtimes drill. However, when one child out of three is a mere eight weeks old, then taking them all outside to play really means sitting someplace (preferably with an unobstructed view) while holding the infant, and watching the other two amuse themselves, hopefully not in too self-destructive a fashion. The little guy and the little girl tend to resemble A Field Guide to Abrasions and Contusions from the knees down as it is, so sometimes that is hoping against hope. And sometimes, like yesterday, between rushing home and knowing I would have to pick my battles mindfully for the evening, I just tend to let things play out as they will, even when that means the little guy is taking one of the toddler riding toys up to the top of the driveway and accelerating back down again on its back, and his little sister is doing the exact same thing as her idolized role model.

Fortunately, the little girl's riding toy had some rudimentary steering ability, which was to the good specifically because she doesn't quite know how to steer it, meaning that when she would start rolling down the driveway she would inevitable trace a slow arc over to the grass on one side or the other instead of flying straight down at ever-increasing speed. Every time this happened, she would just kind of laugh and say "No!" as if she were talking to the riding toy (which looks like a giraffe on wheels) and trying to cajole it into doing what she wanted. At first I thought this was another amusing example of her inability to distinguish between responsive living things and inanimate objects, but then I stopped and thought about all the times I've talked out loud trying to cajole my car (or computer or whathaveyou) into doing what I wanted. So maybe her worldview isn't quite so unsophisticated as all that.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

A boy and his dog and his ronin (Sword of the Stranger)

Hey! It's (my arbitrarily self-declared) ANIME MONTH!!! Off to a bit of a late start, but better late than never, I always say.

Coincidentally enough, there is an anime film due up for attention from the 1001 Movies Blog Club later this month, which I will get to in due time. But today the subject at hand is a 2007 flick called Sword of the Stranger. I ran across reference to this film quite by accident. Noted interwebs gadabout and friend-of-the-blog Harvey Jerkwater was kind enough to direct my attention to a couple of blogs about movie mechanics, Film Crit Hulk and Cockeyed Caravan, and I've been reading through a ton of their archives recently. Both are fantastically illuminating, but Film Crit Hulk wrote up a thinkpiece on action sequences in movies, how they are supposed to work and sometimes don't, and in the comment thread of that post several people raved about the action sequences in Sword of the Stranger. Since I had never even heard of this movie but May was coming, I added it to my Netflix queue, and now here we are.

It is certainly a movie that has quite a bit of action in it, and the action is handled deftly enough. There is a fine line to be walked in cinematic action sequences, especially fight scenes, between giving everything a speed and immediacy that conveys a feeling of breathless chaos to the audience, and yet keeping everything clear and comprehensible and logical so that it does not devolve into a meaningless assault on the senses. Sword of the Stranger does in fact walk that line and delivers some admirably well-constructed swordfights. Beyond that? Not a lot.

On the one hand, it's a simple and straightforward tale that every culture has multiple versions of: a child is being hunted by powerful forces with a sinister agenda; the child encounters a good adult who would be a potential protector if he weren't so self-interested; the child offers to pay the adult for protection; they stay one step ahead of the bad guys, bickering all the while; the adult delivers the child to safety and gets paid, only for the child to then be betrayed into greater danger; the adult realizes he cares about the child enough to risk his own life in a rescue attempt for no reward. I don't really have a problem with archetypal stories, and in fact I realized that this particular story has a built-in advantage in that the Selfish Protector might live or might die saving the child, because surviving the ending is a complete non-factor in both his personal redemption arc and the overarching plot. Most action movies we all assume that the hero is going to live past the closing credits, and no amount of suspension of disbelief can make the climax of the flick truly feel like the hero's ultimate fate is in question. Vanquishing evil usually means outliving it, but apparently not always. (Spoiler: the Selfish Protector in Sword of the Stranger does, in fact, live. You may now return from the edge of your seat.)

On the other hand, there are some more complex trappings in the story which at times made me feel like I must be watching the fourth installment in a six-film cycle or something (as far as I've been able to determine, though, that's not the case). The film is set in feudal Japan, and the bad guys are a Japanese faction working with representatives of the Ming emperor. The emperor wants the child because he fulfills some prophecy and his blood can be used to make an elixir which grants eternal life. The Ming representatives are all highly skilled warriors who can fight without tiring or feeling pain because they are all taking another drug-like elixir that bestows those benefits (but not, as it turns out, immortality). The most deadly and ruthless Ming warrior is a blonde-haired, blue-eyed foreigner. The Selfish Protector is a red-haired foreigner. Where are these non-Asians from, exactly? Why are they far and away better swordsmen than any of the Chinese or Japanese characters? Where does the pain-blocking drug come from, assuming its production is less resource-intensive than the immortality elixir? None of those questions are ever answered.

One of the things that I like about anime, and why I wanted to dig into it some more, is because it does offer a certain amount of insight into Japanese culture - although maybe insight is not quite the right word. Exposure might be better, because insight would imply understanding, and I'm not always left with the feeling that I understand Japanese culture any better for having watched an anime film. Why this historical epic about daimyos and monks should come down to a duel to the death between a Swede(?) and an Irishman(?) is beyond me.

But the pure artistry on display is worth the price of admission and then some. Sword of the Stranger takes full advantage of the fact that it is an animated feature wherein anything that can be conceived and drawn can be put on screen. The camera moves can be fast and furious and capture angles that would be physically impossible for human beings in the real world. The flick of a sword can send the exact right amount of blood flying dramatically across the frame. Because everything is unreal, everything gets equal weight in its rendering, as opposed to live-action blockbusters that try to have their cake and eat it too, with actors and CGI effects interacting uneasily at best. Even Pixar movies, which of course I love, pride themselves on their exacting modeling of real-world physics, but there's a lot to be said for an animated film that embraces a more stylized approach that depicts things your brain knows are impossible yet come alive before your eyes.

In the end, though, at least as far as Sword of the Stranger is concerned, marveling at the technical achievement of the arresting visuals, not just things I've never seen before but those things presented in a way I've never seen before, is really the only takeaway I had from the film. The look and feel served the story admirably, but it was only a passable story to begin with. Hopefully later this month I will have a chance to ruminate on some anime that brings just as much innovation to what's being said as how it's being said.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

TUESDAY BONUS: Alternate Contenders (Part 1)

Last week I posted a (purposefully incomplete) list of 200+ movies I’ve seen in my life which have never been named to the list found in the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die guidebooks. My point was never that all of my movies were equally worthy of the list; I was simply reveling in my own lowbrow tastes and misspent youth, as I am wont to do. But the questions was raised, both in my mind and, as it turned out, in the comments, as to whether or not any of the movies I listed were worth advocating on behalf of.

In the spirit of nice round numbers, I’d like to highlight ten movies which I’ve seen and which are not named among the 1001 Must-Sees, yet which I would argue deserve at least consideration. Of course, if there’s one thing I’m more addicted to than slogging through every sequel in a franchise, it’s offering qualifiers before I make any definitive statements, sooo …

I don’t actually own a copy of the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die book (in any edition). The title seems self-explanatory enough, and the proprietor of the portal for the Blog Club is kind enough to post excerpts from the book relating to each movie as it comes up in the club’s rotation. But I often only know that a movie is in the book, without knowing why, when I sit down to watch it. If there’s some overarching philosophy of what merits a film needs to possess to garner an entry, I’m unaware of it. So I can’t really argue pre-established specifics which might explain why the movies I’ve chosen have been omitted. I can only assert that these flicks rightfully belong on any (uncapitalized) must-see list.

The following movies are not my absolute favorites per se. In defense of the Must See books, a lot of my all-time faves are already on the list (Star Wars, Say Anything, Nightmare on Elm Street, Fight Club, Blade Runner, Reservoir Dogs, Clerks, &c.) The stand-out exclusion is, of course, The Crow, but I babble about that movie enough on the blog as it is and, as I may have mentioned, just because I love that movie in so many ways does not mean that I expect it to be mandatory for anyone else. In a similar vein, the following movies are not all necessarily personally meaningful, despite my well-established penchant for holding up touchstones of pop culture and asserting that if you understand this, you understand me. They’re just ten great movies which, in the spirit with which I approach the 1001 Movies Blog Club, I esteem as recommendable because I think the average person’s life would be richer for having seen them than not. All that said, a couple of them are near the top of my favorites list, and a couple of them are significant to my self-image, but those considerations might be beside the point.

Enough preamble, here we go!

1. Animal House

Animal House is one of those movies you’re just supposed to watch in high school, when you get to the point where you you begin eagerly anticipating college. It’s practically a rite of passage and has been for decades, despite how dated many of the references in the movie are today. I believe that when people, especially in my generation, try to envision the prototypical American campus experience, this movie is at least the underlying foundation of that mental image, assuming that they’ve seen it. That means that every subsequent pop culture reference to college life is highly likely in some way to owe a debt to Animal House. Also, it’s extremely funny and quotable as hell.

2. The Blues Brothers

Given that comedies aren’t completely frozen out of the 1001 Movies list, I am honestly shocked that neither Animal House nor The Blues Brothers make the cut. Maybe they’re not universal enough, maybe they’re primarily guys’ guys’ movies, maybe their reputations have been sullied by latter-day cash-in attempts like the short-lived Animal House tv series or the awful Blues Brothers 2000 sequel. Whatever the case, they deserve to be seen. And The Blues Brothers is a two-for-one because not only is it full of comic ringers at the top of their game, but it has an absolutely killer soundtrack with performances by the original artists integrated into the plot of the movie. So you’ve got your history of comedy and your history of pop music right there.

3. Big Trouble in Little China

Big Trouble in Little China is not a game-changer of American cinema, nor is viewing it going to change anyone’s life. But if it fails to put a smile on your face then you may be in need of more therapy than the simple cinematic variety. It is a martial arts fantasy/comedy/action cult classic (including the part where it was a flop when it was first released). It’s Kurt Russell at his 80’s swaggering best, playing Jack Burton as a badass on the same order as Snake Plissken or R.J. MacReady but with every ounce of seriousness stripped away. Which suits the plot movie as well, as it piles on absurdities in the name of high adventure. Yes, it traffics in retrograde Asian stereotypes and yes, it glorifies violence. It’s the kind of movie that is infinitely more likely to be a dude’s favorite movie than a lady’s. But if you have the opportunity to see it, especially with someone who already loves it, I wouldn’t turn it down.

4. Hedwig and the Angry Inch

OK, after a trio of dumb-flicks-for-boys, I’m now going to recommend a little-known musical about a sensitive transgendered East German artist! As if The Blues Brothers weren’t enough of a clue, I am actually quite fond of musicals (I was in enough of them in school), and I respect your Guys and Dolls and your Meet Me In St. Louis, but I tend to think that musicals work best when they are about musicians and the songs, while still integral to the plot, are performed because the musician is on stage or in rehearsal, not just following the crazy dream-logic of the genre. Hedwig and the Angry Inch fits that criteria, and the musical numbers are all phenomenal rock and roll numbers, particularly “The Origin of Love” which, so far as I know, is the only power ballad in the universe which draws its lyrics more or less directly from Plato’s Symposium. And the music serves a compelling story about identity (sexual and otherwise) and love (ditto) and fame (kinda ditto?) and how life goes on even after people steal your dreams. It is a movie which rewards re-watching (and re-listening; I always have the soundtrack CD in my car) and, honestly, out of the ten films I’m pushing if I could only wedge one into the 1001 list, it would be Hedwig.

5. Misery

You know Oscar-winning Kathy Bates? This is the movie she won the Oscar for, and with all due respect to her prior work on Broadway and in other films and television, this is the role that made her a star: Annie Wilkes, the number one fan of romance novelist Paul Sheldon. And it’s not as though she gives the highlight performance in an otherwise cruddy flick; Misery is definitely a well-constructed thriller. Of course I am a fully hooked Stephen King superfan, and I consider Misery to be one of his best novels (sometimes, depending on my mood, it is the indisputable champ), so I was always inclined to like this movie, so long as they didn’t botch the adaptation. Thankfully Reiner and Goldman came through with flying colors. And James Caan is no slouch as the captive novelist trying to escape the clutches of a rescuer-turned-jailer-and-tormentor. But Bates owns this movie, and it’s really something to see.

I’m gonna be way over the limit if I keep going, so I will save the other five recommendations for another post!

No redshirting

Yesterday, our oldest child was scheduled to be tested for kindergarten readiness, which has actually been a subject of intense discussion around our house for months. The little guy is (if I do say so myself) really bright and precocious and outgoing so there was never any question in my mind that the September he turned five would be the optimal time for him to start real school, and I never gave much (any) serious consideration to holding him back a year for any reason. However, the flipside of his high intelligence and big personality is that he can be incredibly stubborn and willful, and easily frustrated and emotionally volatile over the gap between his reach and his grasp. So it was at least theoretically possible that while I knew he was ready for kindergarten, an outsider assessor might disagree.

The little guy’s daycare pre-school program is somewhat oriented toward preparing the tykes for school, e.g. every kid has a journal notebook in which they practiced writing, first by tracing words written in highlighter, then by copying them freehand. They started with their own names and when they mastered that, they moved on to other vocabulary words. The little guy, however, stalled out a bit on that front, which ended up being a purely motivational issue. His handwriting was small child sloppy, and his teacher wouldn’t let him move on from writing his name to writing other words until his handwriting improved, but that meant he just got insanely bored writing his name over and over again, so he lost interest in the whole deal. (I believe this is a very low stakes and small scale version of what happens to sub-median kids in public education all the time, which basically sucks.)

Personally, I didn’t care if the little guy was all in on the journal-based lesson plans or not, until my wife pointed out that if he stopped trying and never mastered writing his own name legibly, then they might not let him go to kindergarten this year. Which was a bit of a shock to me. I could understand the school asking the parents to hold back a child who was seriously developmentally delayed, whether socially or intellectually or whatever, like if they’re not potty trained or don’t speak in complete sentences or whathaveyou. But how could a publicly funded school system put arbitrary achievement benchmarks up in front of kindergarten admission? What about the kids whose parents can’t afford pre-school, how are they supposed to have pre-learned anything? Apparently, though, this is the world we live in now, and we’re lucky to have had our little guy enrolled somewhere with a Montessori program, if only we could get him to actually take advantage of it. And he did, eventually, of his own accord, so that was good.

Still! The requirement for kindergarten was not that we turn in the little guy’s Montessori journal, but rather that he demonstrate his own readiness by meeting with one of the teachers and going through some basic tests. And I gotta be honest, I was a little nervous yesterday because of the timing and the circumstances. Eight weeks in, we’re still dealing with some minor regression behavior and acting out thanks to the newest arrival in our family, which I am trying (not always successfully) to unconcernedly allow to run their natural course. But I could foresee the little guy having a freakout at kindergarten testing, for any number of reasons: he could go into shy mode and refuse to talk to the teacher, or succumb to a complete meltdown and refuse to separate from his mother, or just decide to be a crankypants who huffs and sighs about how he doesn’t want to do any of the tests. And the teacher would have no choice but to make some notes in her file about emotional unreadiness and give my wife a sympathetic smile and a “maybe next year”.

The fretting was for naught, as it turned out. The little guy is excited about the prospect of kindergarten and was eager not only to visit his future school but to follow the teacher with good-spirited willingness. There was no self-defeating behavior impeding his ability to demonstrate that he does, in fact, have the goods. The little guy does like to show off, and he usually will given the opportunity assuming no other cognitive interference (like anxiety or the irrepressible urge to pitch a fit). The teacher was duly impressed with his ability to recognize sight words, so it’s possible that my wife and I might have pushed him a bit farther in areas like reading than we absolutely had to. I suppose, come this fall, we shall see!

Monday, May 13, 2013

Traps

Nothing newsy happening at work right now. I’m getting closer and closer to the end of my study tome for the certification exam, but with every day that goes by with just a few more dense, jargon-riddled pages consumed (and hopefully comprehended and committed to memory) I find myself struggling to keep under control a growing feeling of GAH GAH GAH JUST LET ME TAKE THE TEST ALREADY. I might very well get a passing grade, even without slogging through the last 20% of the book! I do very well on standardized tests! It’s one of the reasons I’ve been able to coast this far in life as it is!

But of course this is a terrible idea. The mature, responsible and professional thing to do is to keep at with the self-study until I’m truly prepared, and then have my employer pony up the cash for the exam, knowing that I did everything I could to prepare myself and reasonably assure an optimal outcome. Winging it with some combination of my real-world job experience and my innate ability to spot the best answer on multiple-choice tests is appealing, but that’s only because it’s a diabolical trap my ego has set for me. One which I’m far better off avoiding.

Speaking of traps and also of careers (go with me on this one), my wife has officially returned to work, with a half-day shift this past Friday and another one on Saturday. She’s back doing clinical veterinary practice and also back at a feline-only clinic, which allows her a certain amount of specialization which she prefers. And so far the new boss seems non-crazy and the support staff seems nice and competent, so all in all it’s a good setup for her. I was home with all the kids on Saturday morning, but on Friday we had our first experience with in-home care for the two youngest (the little guy is continuing to go to daycare until the end of May) and that went well, also.

The trap element in this case is money, it must sadly but truly be said. Not too long ago I was talking to an old college friend/former colleague who is getting married this fall and is planning on starting a family within the next couple years. My friend asked me what the monthly expense for daycare in the area were like, and I had to break it to him that quality daycare is outrageously expensive. My wife and I find it a considerable strain on our budget, and that’s with my wife sticking to a non-traditional schedule that allows her to be home some days when I’m at the office and working others, so our kids have never required fulltime five-day-a-week care. I kind of summed things up for my friend by opining that one reason why there are so many college-educated women who are more than competent in their chosen fields who choose to become stay-at-home moms is because if they did work but also paid for fulltime daycare, they’d end up losing money every month.

But the reason why this is a trap rather than a no-brainer, especially in my wife’s case, is because her career requires a certain amount of upkeep. Maybe she could take a few years off while the kids are very small, and then go back to work when the kids are in public (aka covered by taxes) school and only need a modicum of before-and-after care that we’d pay for out of pocket. On a strict number-crunching level that might add up, but during those years she wasn’t working my wife would be falling behind on medical and technological advances in her field, and he resume would have a gap on it that employers tend to view with a negatively biased eye, and those are difficult challenges to overcome.

So we suck it up and break even on the source of income versus expense of daycare calculation, because it avoids certain problems that might otherwise crop up further down the road. And we play the lottery when it gets up to the triple-digit-millions, because man, that would obliterate certain budgetary traps in a highly satisfying way.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Saturday Grab Bag Scramble

When I got back from paternity leave a few weeks ago, my oblivious co-worker (Ms. Nonsense) was mysteriously absent. There were also some new hires clearly in the midst of settling in, so I assumed Ms. N. was no longer with the agency. Turned out she had actually taken a month-long vacation, and she returned this past Monday. And don't get me wrong, good for her, life is short and if you can manage to save up four weeks of leave and then put them to use, more power to you. But clearly her recent world travels did little to broaden her horizons.

I say this because I overheard her this week talking to one of the new hires, and the subject under discussion was the vending machine in the office kitchen/break room. The vending machine happened to be completely empty at the beginning of this week because it was in the midst of transitioning out of our office, to be replaced with a bigger, newer machine. So, first off, Ms. N. assumed that it was simply never going to be refilled again, and so she was waxing rhapsodic about how really great it was back in the day when they stocked the vending machine. She specifically mentioned how it used to have "Fritos, and M&Ms, all kinds of stuff ..." with an abundance of nostalgic wonderment.

Fritos. And M&Ms. Seriously? I defy you to pick more ubiquitous or more prosaic snack foods than those. There are numerous delis and convenience stores physically connected to this office building which sell both. It's not as though having a machine close at hand that vends Fritos and M&Ms is some kind of rare treat. I can understand being excited to the point of talking it up with your cube-mates if you found a vending machine that sold a specific regional treat or obscure brand of chips or candy, or likewise being sad if said magical portal to alterna-grub were abruptly taken away. But Fritos and M&Ms? That's like being excited that a restaurant has Heinz ketchup.

+++

I can't actually watch movies or tv or read books or comics while I'm sitting at my desk at work, but I can surf the web, especially news websites, and I've gotten fairly addicted to entertainment news. For years and years I've read more reviews of new films and novels than I've gone to the cineplex or picked up a best-seller. And lately I've been following all the extremely inside-industry behind the scenes news about shows getting picked up or cancelled or whatnot.

So, I confess, I spent a great deal of time yesterday refreshing certain newsfeeds to see if there was any word on Community being renewed for a fifth season, because I knew an announcement was due around that time. Sure enough, about 9 p.m. last night as my wife and I were already early to bed and I was making my last interweb rounds on my phone, I saw that the word was yes.

I was at peace with the idea of this week's episode being the series finale, or I thought I was, but when I learned of the impending fifth season I almost woke my wife up to share my excitement. (I thought better of it and told her this morning.) I will probably do a long post sometime soon about the finale, the fourth season as part of the overall series, and various random thoughts, but for now, I'm just enjoying being optimistic about where the show goes from here. So, time to celebrate!

I guess?

+++

So how about that baseball, huh? My wife and I were just talking about the ever-changing landscape of the AL East standings the other day and she admitted that she doesn't actually check the standings every single day this early in the season. To which I could only respond, why else do you think they update them every day, if not to obsess over them almost hourly? But apparently that's just me.

In my defense, I was struck during the pre-season this year by one of the Orioles' announcers (the Jims) making a prediction that the first team in the AL East to have a win-loss record 10 games above .500 would go on to win the pennant. That mark could come as early as 11 games into the season or as late as mid-summer, and I kept it in mind as the first few weeks of the season came and went. And sure enough, a week (or so?) ago, the Red Sox were 10 games over .500. They were also alone in first place, but they no longer are either one of those things, so hopefully in this case the Jim was wrong! The future remains to be written!

But it has been a slugfest so far between the Sox, Yankees and O's for top of the division, and I imagine that is going to be the case for quite a while to come. I have to hand it to Baltimore, though, the three teams are within a game of each other but the O's have managed to hang tough while playing far more road games so far than either New York or Boston. That's impressive in itself.

+++

I feel like I missed making a particular point in Wednesday’s post about how many non-canon films I’ve seen in my life, so please indulge me in correcting that oversight now. The entire reason I brought up the phenomenon of watching movies more than once was to address the overall idea of uses of my time. I’ve definitely seen 200 movies in my life which have been deemed 1001-worthy. I’ve probably seen 500 different movies in my life, total (give or take). But I’ve taken the time to watch some, most or all of a movie … I don’t know … 1000 times? Maybe more? My lifetime total movie familiarity could (and arguably should) extend farther than it actually does, because of all the time I’ve spent watching the same movies over and over again. Every encore viewing of a flick I already have memorized represents a brand-new-to-me film I could have watched, but didn’t.

Which, granted, is kind of a “yeah, duh” point to begin with. But honestly it is one that occupies my mind, in some form or another, quite a bit. It actually constitutes an entire sub-category of conversations I frequently find myself having with my buddy Clutch, wherein we attempt to answer difficult questions: if we believe that life well-lived involves seeking out and enjoying new experiences, why do we keep doing the same things over and over again? In his case, it's playing through video games that he's already beaten; in mine, it's channel-surfing and getting sucked into movies I've already seen. We could be doing better things with our time! Designing new gaming systems! Writing the great American novel! Adding to the culture instead of mindlessly consuming the same pre-digested bits of it! Why can't we break these habits? I still don't know, but in some small way it bugs me.