Thursday, August 29, 2013

Ready, set ...

I doubled up on posts yesterday because I knew today would be a quickie: I’m only at work for the morning, and leaving at noon to pick up the little guy at home and take him to kindergarten orientation. Which is very exciting! I’m sure the transition from his idle summer at home to full-five-day-a-week school will be a bit of a bumpy process, for him and his mother and me (as most major changes are) but there’s no turning back now so we might as well stride confidently forward.

Things on the domestic child-rearing front have been reasonably pleasant and tranquil of late. The baby’s first tooth is coming in, which has thrown him off a little bit although he still remains one of the happiest little infants I’ve ever known. The little girl has very recently discovered the phrase “That’s my favorite!” and is of course applying it indiscriminately to anything and everything that falls into her line of sight or comes up in conversation. The other day she also, along with her brother, found one of the toys I had packed away in the basement, a minigaming figure that stands over a foot tall, since it depicts an interstellar giant who eats planets. The little girl took one look at Galactus, Devourer of Worlds, picked him up, hugged him and looked at me with a beaming smile and said “I love him!” Which was pretty rad

The raddest thing the little guy himself has said lately has been a clarification of his career intentions. As he explained to my wife and me, the plan now is that when he grows up he will be a paleontologist AND an astronomer. “When the sun is up, and it’s light outside, I’ll dig for fossils! And when it’s dark, I’ll look at the stars!” I certainly can’t argue with that, but it’s going to require a couple of advanced degrees, at least. So we'd better get that whole schooling thing off on the right foot.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Obligatory Batfleck Post

Teh interwebs are by nature a realm of anonymity, which enables people to unleash their inner a-hole to a gobsmacking degree, and also makes it impossible to state anything definitive about its demographics. You might assume the person spewing grammatically suspect slurs at you is a twelve-year-old boy, but it might very well be a tech-savvy, trolling grandma. Certainty is ever elusive. Still, I’m reasonably sure that a lot of the people who’ve been freaking out on the internet about the news that Ben Affleck has been cast as Batman in the next Superman movie are, at the very least, too young to remember the autumn of ‘88, if not so young that said season came and went before they were ever born. (Your average 23-year-old was born in 1990. So, yeah.)

Well gather ‘round, kiddies, ‘cuz Middle-Aged Man has a thing or two to tell you about Bat-casting choices. I remember the great grievous garment-rending that accompanied the announcement of Michael Keaton’s casting as Batman; somehow this apprehension made it into the zeitgeist despite it being a pre-Internet timeframe. Multitudes of people were convinced that Keaton was completely wrong for the part, since after all he was a comedian first and foremost, famous for playing the eponymous Mr. Mom or Blaze from Night Shift (which, by the by, is a criminally underrated movie which teamed Keaton with Henry Winkler as pimps before pimpin’ was cool). The skepticism was crushing, and yet it was counterbalanced by a couple of things. Number one, Batman was going to be the first big budget live-action superhero movie since the Superman franchise squandered itself into oblivion, which was reason enough for much nerd rejoicing (especially in the heart of yours truly, age 14 at the time). And number two:

Nicholson as the Joker. Villains always make or break heroic fictions, and nobody had any argument with Nicholson as graphic literature’s most infamous evil clown. So people griped and groused about Keaton, but then the summer of ‘89 arrived and the movie came out and broke all kinds of box office records, and clearly the pre-emptive backlash was misplaced and quickly forgotten.

Nowadays, of course, Tim Burton’s vision of Batman is divisive, and doesn’t necessarily hold up, especially compared to the recent spate of comic book movies. But none of that comes down to Keaton’s performance. The point is, actors have range. Some careers start out limited by typecasting or simply defined by a comfort zone, but a revelatory performance might always be right around the corner. That’s also because movies are collaborative, with a screenwriter producing a script and a director envisioning how to bring that script to life; the actor says the words on the page in a manner elicited by the director, and then there’s a million other invisible arts going on all around that in costumes and set design and soundtracks and special effects and whatnot. Assuming that Affleck as Batman will be exactly like Affleck as [insert whatever character in whatever movie you find actively irritating] except in a cowl with pointy ears? Fundamentally misses the point.

The real point, in my humble opinion, is that Man of Steel was total garbage, and the possibility of its sequel being total garbage has always been high, and Affleck being cast as Batman in the sequel does nothing to convince me that they have turned away from that possibility. Not because I have anything against Affleck! I’m sure he will acquit himself as well as Henry Cavill did with the material given. But there’s the rub.

Rumor has it that Affleck is an apt choice to play Batman not despite his age (he’ll be about 42 during production, a decade older than Christian Bale was for Batman Begins) but because of it. The movie will allegedly draw at least partial inspiration from Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns, a story about a crafty, grizzled older version of Batman which climaxes with an epic Batman-vs.-Superman showdown. To which I can only say: UGH. Again, not that I have anything against Dark Knight Returns! It’s a classic, which despite being so imitated over the years that it almost reads as self-parody still retains a certain greatness. But it’s a great Batman story. Superman just happens to be in it.

Ever since comics became “not just for kids” and writers infused the archetypal superheroes with psychological complexity, flaws and foibles and moral ambiguity, it’s become very hard to tell a balanced Superman and Batman story. Either the sympathy is with Superman, and Batman is a violent paranoid nutjob, or the sympathy is with Bats and Supes is a naive sanctimonious boy scout. A select few writers manage to avoid this, and approach the pair as two sides of the same coin who recognize both their differences and similarities and work together for the greater good. But most writers would rather just see Superman and Batman fight.

So the Man of Steel movie was this deeply weird take on Superman where instead of being a paragon of inspiration and aspiration he was an insecure, uncertain, unhappy god-among-men in need of redemption. It ended with the trappings of redemption being within reach, ignoring that Superman had just precipitated and participated in untold destruction and devastation. I think the audience was supposed to come away thinking that Superman was one of the good guys, despite being given little evidence to that and mountains of proof to the contrary. Now, in the sequel, they’re going to throw an older Batman into the mix for contrast. This can really only go one of two ways:

1 - Batman is in the story to make Superman look good, which will necessarily entail making Batman look bad. Man of Steel played around with (but ultimately had no idea what to do with) the notion of trust, and Batman could very well be introduced as a loner who trusts no one. He won’t trust Superman, and Superman will spend most of the movie trying to win his trust. And/or, Superman will see what life is like when you trust no one and no one trusts you (with Batman as an unhinged vigilante who is scorned by the Gotham police, and who acts as a terrifying urban legend and gets no love from the citizens, either) and re-dedicate himself to maintaining public trust.

2 - Batman ends up looking good in comparison to Superman? Superman becomes the Other, the unknowable Kryptonian who presumes to judge and interfere in the ways of mortal men, while Batman is just a human who pushes himself to the limits. Superman is arrogant in his power and invulnerability, and Batman takes him down a few pegs with good old-fashioned ingenuity and grit.

Both of these outcomes are terrible! The second scenario seems crazily implausible, but then again, if you had told me a couple years ago how the plot of Man of Steel would go I would never have believed you, so who knows. The middle installment of a trilogy is often the darkest, so maybe that’s exactly where the filmmakers will go, pushing Superman to the lowest of lows, beaten down by Batman, a man who should be his staunchest ally. I can almost grasp the logic of that, but again, it’s kind of garbage. They’ve already cheapened the concept of the character so much, it just seems to add insult to injury.

Then again, if they go the first route with Batman as quasi-villain, how does that bode for the supposed Justice League movie they’re building towards? It’s one thing to have years upon years of comic book stories where Batman is a white-hat good guy, and so is Superman, and sometimes they team up, and eventually they form a team with all their other superhero friends, and then you start messing with the dynamics and introducing some “but what about this?”-style questions, when you’ve got a solid foundation to bounce off of. It’s another to introduce, for the very first time within this particular (truly odd) cinematic universe, the Batman character and have him be the Jerk In Someone Else’s Story. Can the idea of Batman recover from that, and be part of the eventual mega-franchise roster? Probably not, because probably they won’t even try, they’ll just handwave away everything troubling and thought-provoking about whatever goes down in the prior 120 minutes and have Superman and Batman stolidly, resolutely and respectfully shake each other’s hands, despite the fact that Superman had been forced to heat-vision Alfred in half (or something).

There are subtle and meaningful and rewarding ways to tell a balanced Superman and Batman story, and Affleck would be great in that story. But going by the precedent, we’re going to get a tortured hour of angst, and an interminable extended assault scene pitting Batman’s technology and tactics against Superman’s raw innate strength, and then a quick and cheap ending that makes little to no sense. And Affleck will be fine in that, too, but that’s beside the point.

Blogstones (3?...4?... A Million?)

Yet another 28th of August has rolled around, the date on which I first posted to this blog waaaaay back in 2009. You'd think the fourth occasion of such a milestone would thus be #4 in a series of recurring entries, but of course I am nowhere near that consistent or organized. I humbly skipped the first anniversary of the ol' bloggity-blog, then made sure to point it out at the two years mark, and then followed that up scant days later with the 500th post. At the time, I lamented not having properly aligned the anniversary and the big round-numbered post, and I even made a crack about doing better come August of 2013.

Then the third anniversary came and went last year unremarked upon, mostly because I was just getting back form vacation around the 28th and was not in the commemorative mindset, plus I had a lot of other post-fodder from the recent week at the beach, anyway. So here we are now, the blog is four, but this is the third time I've drawn attention to the (debatable) noteworthiness of its age and/or size. And the 1,000th post? Still a couple months away at the rate I've been going lately. So it goes.

Since today is Wednesday, if I'm going to indulge in any backwards-looking self-regard I might as well tie it into something on the geekier end of the spectrum. How about Game of Thrones? I will keep my remarks brief, but I do have a couple of thoughts to share:

I always keep one eye on the page hit stats for this whole endeavor, just out of curiosity as to which posts draw random visitors from crazy keyword searches and whatnot. Usually it's all driven far more by image searches returning the pictures I appropriate to break up each post, rather than anything I've actually rambled about in the text. I noticed recently that a seriously old post from November of 2009 had been stumbled upon, and I opened it up to remind myself what it was about. Post-apocalyptic pulps, mostly (and the picture of the day was the half-buried Statue of Liberty from Planet of the Apes) but I did have to laugh at part of the opening: I wanted to talk about the author Jack Vance, but in my roundabout preambling kind of way I started talking about how I heard about Vance through George R.R. Martin, and I made a very coy mention about how I was currently reading "an unfinished series of books by Martin". Obviously I was talking about A Song of Ice and Fire, which is the basis of Game of Thrones, but back in 2009 I assumed nobody would know or care what that series was, or who the hell George R.R. Martin might be, either. Funny how a few years changes things, and Game of Thrones is pretty inescapable now.

Which segues nicely into my second point, about another post which does come up every once in a while in the stats log, also from that same month and year. In it I was going on and on about an old Superman supporting character who was blatantly ripped off from an obscure Sean Connery sci-fi movie, a character named Vartox from the planet Valeron. And as time has gone by I've often wondered if people are trying to enter "Valyrian" into their search engines, or even "Valyrian steel" which is the fabled metal that the most legendary longswords are forged from in the world of, you guessed it, Game of Thrones. And my post, referring to a world called Valeron (as well as Superman aka the Man of Steel) would be a close match, particularly for people who've only seen the show on HBO and never read the books and don't quite know how to spell "Valyrian".

At any rate, here's to another four years (at least!) of over-obsessing about fictional universes and playing havoc with search results!

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Lasers and lassos

I don’t believe I’ve had much cause to mention it lately, but the little guy is still obsessed with the Toy Story movies. Moreover, he is completely and totally Team Buzz.

Which is odd, because there isn’t much of a Team Buzz in the canonical source material. Woody, of course, has the Round-Up Gang which at the very least gives him both a sidekick and a steed in Jessie and Bullseye (and I suppose an antagonist in Stinky Pete). Buzz has Emperor Zerg and … that’s about it. The little three-eyed aliens seem thematically connected to him, but they’re Pizza Planet giveaways, not officially licensed Space Ranger allies. And they end up getting adopted by Mr. and Mrs. Potato-Head anyway. And yes, Buzz and Jessie end up romantically involved, at least to whatever extent sentient toys in a Pixar/Disney franchise can, which just goes to show that “Andy’s toys” is really a fairly cohesive tribe that doesn’t need to broken into factions or anything.

But it’s still interesting that when my Very Little Bro visited and gave the little guy a set of small Toy Story figures including Buzz and Woody and Rex the dinosaur, it was Buzz specifically that the little guy took to carrying around everywhere, with Woody and Rex all but ignored. And yet at the same time, a couple of months ago I sat down with the little guy and helped him brainstorm a list of potential birthday gifts, and he came up with seven, six of which were characters from Toy Story. He wanted the big, 12-or-16-inch tall version of Buzz, as well as Woody and Jessie and Rex and Slink and Bullseye. So it’s not a case of all Buzz or nothing, just a matter of priorities. Clearly Buzz was number one on the list.

So I made sure to order Buzz online well in advance, and then July faded into August and the little guy became more and more of a handful at home because he was bored - our biggest challenge is the fact that he’s still too young to play outside unsupervised, whereas his little sister and baby brother are sometimes too busy napping or nursing or having extra-delicate newborn skin to go outside in the blazing sun very often (or at all) so we have to find ways to accommodate them all. Long story short, we ended up giving the little guy his big Buzz figure early. And that was the right call! His behavior has been much improved of late as he is thrilled to have a fully poseable, sound-effect-and-dialogue echoing version of his favorite character.

My Very little Bro was in town again not too long ago and took the little guy to see Planes (the kinda-sequel to Cars, or really to one of Mater’s Tall Tales all about flying machines). My wife and I had been holding off on buying any more birthday presents for the little guy until after he saw Planes, since we figured it might unleash a rediscovered love for that world between Radiator Springs and Propwash Junction, and a rekindled passion for the toys as well. When we asked the little guy if he liked the movie, he said he did, but when we asked him if he had anything to add to his birthday wishlist, he only shrugged and said maybe he would like a Planes toy for Christmas. So Toy Story remains the order of the day.

This past weekend the whole family trekked over to PartyCo to get some decorations for the little guy’s imminent birthday party, which was a successful excursion by just about every measure (we forgot to get party hats, as the little guy pointed out later, but we have to go back the day of the party to pick up a special-order balloon anyway, so all is not lost). We were looking for Toy Story branded stuff, and despite the fact that the final movie of the trilogy came out over three years ago, that stuff is not hard to find. But that night, after the kids were in bed, my wife pointed out “We’re lucky the little guy’s favorite character is Buzz.”

She was observing that the vast majority of the Toy Story stuff was really Buzz stuff, which hadn’t even occurred to me in the store because I was looking at everything through little-guy-colored glasses, but she was absolutely right, of course. Interesting again, I say. Woody is the leader of the toys and the main character of all three installments, it’s really a story about him grappling with lots of difficult developments and evolving as a result. Buzz starts out as a very earnest toy who believes he’s actually a space ranger and by the end of the first movie is a very earnest toy who understands he’s a toy, and that’s pretty much the way he remains thereafter. Maybe that’s the main appeal to little kids? If you’re looking for a complex, humanly flawed character, you’ll wind up latching onto Woody, but if you just want straightforward WYSIWYG, you’ll look to Buzz.

(For what it’s worth, the little guy, still not quite five, nevertheless does grasp the arc of Buzz’s development pretty well. His new big Buzz doll says lots of snippets of dialogue, but the little guy recognizes that they’re all things he said when he thought he was a space ranger and didn’t realize he was a toy. He has spoken (not in so many words, but getting the idea across all the same) of a different conceptualization of the action figure which would say more self-aware things. Which is kind of a trip.)

There’s also the eternal divide between spacemen and cowboys, which of course is subtly suggested in the first Toy Story movie and really underlined in the second (and then essentially forgotten during the third): cowboys are old-fashioned, spacemen are futuristic, and kids tend to gravitate towards the shiniest new thing around. With every passing year the western genre becomes more and more a part of the distant past, while the potential future of space exploration remains before us, coming closer. The little guy does have a strong fascination with astronomy, so you could make the argument about what interests Buzz and Woody represent, but I think that’s more projection on my part. I’ll stand by my theory about Woody being a more difficult character for a little kid to parse the motivations of, whereas Buzz’s are transparently heroic all the time.

But I’ve been thinking about cowboys a lot lately, too. I was a sci-fi junkie from a very young age, utterly enthralled with Star Wars and Flash Gordon and any comic book storyline involving alien invasions. I grew up thinking of “Cowboys and Indians” as a game my dad played as a kid, while I’d rather play “Voltron and Ro-Beasts”. Which means if you asked me to answer quickly, without giving it much thought, did I ever play with cowboy toys as a kid, I’d say no. Or I would have, before I started giving it some thought, which has instead led me to realize that I had a surprising amount of cowboy stuff as a kid.

One thing that brought this all to mind was the high-profile flop of the new Lone Ranger movie this summer. There was a Lone Ranger movie released when I was a kid, in ‘81, and it was a disaster, too. But it wound up on HBO, so of course I saw it a time or two, and it spawned a ton of merchandise. I remember having Lone Ranger Underoos, which had a Marshall’s star and a bandolier of silver bullets and a red bandana. I had some Lone Ranger action figures (and their horses), too. And I had some generic cowboy six-shooters, chrome-painted plastic cap guns with vinyl holsters, which I remember packing for a visit to my grandmother’s beach house because she always gave me and my Little Bro and our cousins pocket money for the local drug store, which was one of the only places I knew that sold the caps.

So, yeah, cowboys were never too far away, even if they were not my favorite go-to playthings. I guess the cycle repeats itself, again and again.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Once more into the caucus race

The big breakthrough on my big project at work finally came last Friday, which explains why I failed to post anything then: I was actually busy working! And that has remained the case today, which further explains why this post is going to be short. Not that I’m complaining, mind.

Well, all right, technically I am going to complain because just when I was building up a nice head of steam to finally put the big bad project to rest once and for all, I got locked out of my classified workstation. Yes, again. That puts a bit of a damper on my enthusiasm, not to mention my ability to actually get stuff done. Granted, this particular snafu got cleared up relatively quickly last time it happened, and presumably will be handled with similar expedience this time, but still. Come ON.

It occurred to me some time in the past few weeks that if I experienced this many runarounds and delays and stonewalls and this level of general indifference in any other aspect of my life, I would walk away. If my bank dealt with me the way the IT support at my job deals with me, I’d close out all my accounts and find a new bank. I’d switch cable providers, find a new auto shop, buy my groceries from a different chain, cease frequenting a restaurant. I’ve switched daycare centers over less aggravation than this. But of course I’m not a customer in this scenario, I’m a government contractor, and it’s an entirely loopier looking-glass world over here.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Institutionalization

This very week, most of the kids’ grandparents are on vacation at the beach. My dad and stepmom (and sister, and stepsister and her husband, and Very little Bro and his girlfriend) are in the Outer Banks, while my wife’s folks are in Emerald Isle (North Carolina, not Ireland). At the risk of sounding like a broken record, I surely do envy them. The reasons why a beach vacation was not in the cards for my nuclear family this summer are solid, and I’ve made peace with them, and have chosen to divert my energies toward looking forward to a long break around Christmas to use up all these banked Paid Time Off hours, and then anticipating a return to sunny seaside getaways in the summer of next year.

Still and all, one week to mellow by the pool and recharge the old batteries before summer recedes would be awfully nice, especially this year. One week from today, the neighborhood elementary school is having an open house, including Kindergarten Orientation, which is especially salient to us and the little guy. The school year itself begins the following Wednesday, September 4th. The commingling of our firstborn and the public school system is ON. This is not a drill, people, this is happening.


Right on, Schoolhouse Rock.

He’s looking forward to it, and I have to imagine that after a summer in which he’s mainly been playing with his two-and-a-half year old sister, and occasionally the baby-sitter’s three year old son, that simply being in a room full of other five year olds will satisfy his need for socializing in a way he’s been profoundly missing lately. On top of that, my wife has been lamenting that the little guy seems hopelessly bored this month, with precious little in the way of stimulating new experiences available to him given that his parents often have their hands full between the aforementioned sister and also an infant in need of constant care and supervision. So the fact that it’s not merely a room full of five year olds but actually a structured educational environment can only be to the good. I admit I’m nursing certain fantasies that maybe, juuuuuuust maybe, for the first two weeks of school or so the little guy will throw himself into every single new opportunity and experience in the classroom, and come home cheerful but spent, and be extremely compliant about going to bed early. I know there’s at least an equal chance that he will come home overstimulated and short-fused, but come on, give me my harmless daydreams for a little longer.

Speaking of overstimulation, my wife and I discussed the possibilities and came to an agreement that while we think some kind of extracurricular physical activity, like gymnastics class, would be extremely beneficial to the little guy (and to our peace of mind by providing yet another outlet for his energies) it would probably be a case of too much all at once to sign the little guy up for something right around the same time that kindergarten begins. So we’re going to hold off on that until later in the fall. However, there’s no reason not to get the little girl into swimming lessons at the indoor aquatic center as soon as possible, so she’ll be starting those in September.

Big, big changes: little girl in the pool, little guy in five-day-a-week school. Sometime around then the baby will be six months old, too, and if he’s sitting up on his own by then he might very well start getting served solid food in a high chair and all that. And we have out-of-town fall weddings to travel for and holidays to prepare for and NFL games and new seasons of sitcoms don’t just watch themselves, people! We’re gonna be busy, is what I’m saying, and that’s a pretty good problem to have and almost entirely due to things we’ve voluntary chosen to take on. It would’ve been well and good to have a little getaway to allow us the luxury of coming back to the real world with renewed purpose and focus, but life goes on regardless.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

But what about the screwdriver? (The African Queen)

1001 Movies Blog Club time! This week the group turns its attention on John Huston’s famed and beloved classic, The African Queen. This was an easy sell for me, as I do enjoy Humphrey Bogart’s trademark world-weary, above-it-all (or really off-to-the-side-of-it-all) cool. The man died before I was born, when my parents were just little kids, and yet I knew who Bogey was before I ever saw any of his movies, thanks to the omnipresence of old Bugs Bunny cartoons in my childhood and Warner Brothers’ propensity for using the actor’s likeness in the Looney Tunes universe.

(I somehow doubt that the mid-90’s Animaniacs-driven attempts to do the same with then-current celebrity cameos will end up having the same staying power.

But I digress.)

So, for factoids of historical note associated with The African Queen, we have: Humphrey Bogart’s one and only Oscar-winning performance, some ground-breaking work in on-location shooting in exotic locales, the luminary presence of Katherine Hepburn, and the backdrop of the Great War. Sounds like a sure bet, as the perfect score on Rotten Tomatoes and the inclusion on multiple AFI lists would seem to indicate.

And the movie itself, is … okay, I guess? In some ways it’s quite good, and in some ways it’s fine. I think the movie hits what it’s aiming for, but it doesn’t aim terribly high. I feel suitably churlish for putting it that way, but ah well. There’s simply nothing transcendent about the film that elevates into the upper echelons of legendary movies, in my opinion.

On a certain level, The African Queen is practically an open instruction manual for a crowd-pleasing adventure story. Start with a noble tragic figure, a charming rogue, and a brave maiden. Samuel Sayer the missionary, Charlie Allnut (which I readily grant is a fanTAStic name) the boat captain, and Rose Sayer. Kill off the first character, setting the third character on a quest for vengeance with the reluctant assistance of the second - check. If possible, have the death come at the hands of unquestionably evil villains the audience will have no trouble rooting against; German soldiers loyal to the Kaiser are second only to Hitler-loving Nazis in that department. Have the rogue enumerate the obstacles he and the maiden will likely face, to prime the audience tension, and then move the characters through each of those trials one after the other, with only enough downtime for a little character development and the opportunity for the rogue and the maiden to fall in love - check! Bring the characters to a moment of desperation where it seems all hope is lost, say mooring their boat in reeds and mud impossible to escape from, and then provide the requisite escape at the last possible moment, in this case a swelling of the river after the rains which lifts the boat. Then have the characters obtain the goal of their quest and live happily ever after, cut and print.

I can’t fault The African Queen for sticking to that formula and executing it precisely. All of the major action setpieces are handled well, and they cover a broad range of challenges for the protagonists: shooting the rapids (multiple, escalating times) and maneuvering past a German-held fort under heavy fire are thrilling and intense; repairing the boat after the third set of rapids bend the shaft and snap the propeller is satisfyingly filled with secret knowledge; poling the boat, and towing it by wading ahead of it, through the river delta is agonizingly slow and monotonous, evoking the hopelessness of the situation. And when the river is not actively trying to kill Charlie and Rose, the quieter moments do their work almost as well. I never for a moment felt a hint of spark between Bogart and Hepburn, since their interactions felt as staged as the safari B-roll footage interspersed throughout, but I took the perfunctory romance in stride as part of the narrative expectations.

But the narrative never really rises above its own plot. It’s highly entertaining, but what does it all mean? There are some interesting ideas about patriotism in a time of war and doing whatever it takes to strike at the enemy in the most direct manner possible, and about the grieving process and how to handle it, and even about finding love later in life (Charlie drunkenly calls Rose an “old maid” to her face, and he’s no spring chicken himself) but those ideas are simply inherent to the events in the story and never really developed as themes, which I think is a shame.

There were a couple of surprises for me, however, both wrapped up in the ending of the movie. Rose’s goal, which slowly but surely becomes Charlie’s common cause, is to attack, blow up and sink the Queen Louisa in the lake at the end of the river. Every obstacle the pair faces is resolved straightforwardly throughout: the rapids are fast and rough, but they hang on and get through them. The German fort notices them and soldiers shoot at them, but Rose and Charlie hide against the hull and take only superficial damage, and ultimately the sun blinds the soldiers through their rifle scopes as Rose predicted it would. Then the rapids are faster and rougher, but they get through them again. Then the rapids are fastest and roughest, and the boat is damaged, but fixable. Then they enter the delta and do in fact lose the channel, but the rains save them. You see where this is going: time to build the homebrew torpedos and ram the German gunship! The torpedos sure enough get built, but then a sudden storm sinks The African Queen in the middle of the lake. The quest ends in failure.

When I was in college, taking the one and only film course in my career, my professor pointed out that (almost) all classic stories are either comedies or tragedies, and the tragedies (almost) always end with a death, while comedies (almost) always end with a marriage. In the case of films, particularly in Hollywood, sometimes this is a symbolic marriage in the form of a kiss. The African Queen is more comedy than tragedy, so my initial expectation was that Rose and Charlie would set the little boat on its suicide run, encounter some last-minute complication to solve, jump off the boat together at the latest possible moment, watch the two ships blow up, and then kiss each other, the end. So once the African Queen sank with her improvised torpedos intact, I wasn’t sure what the final run time would bring. I found it fascinating that they managed to work in the wedding - not even a symbolic one, but actually officiated by the German commander of the Queen Louisa! - and then the triumph of the enemy ship accidentally running into and detonating the torpedos on the barely-floating wreck of the African Queen. It’s a neat little subversion/inversion.

The other surprise for me was something that never happened during the climax of the movie. Early on, Charlie explains to Rose that the African Queen’s boiler has a screwdriver rattling around inside it somewhere, and one of these days he’s going to take the whole thing apart and get the screwdriver out. Until then, he needs to occasionally kick the boiler to make it behave. He hasn’t repaired it as of yet, he elaborates, because he kind of likes kicking it. On the one hand, this is a deft piece of character development, but on the other hand it practically screams Chekhov's Screwdriver, doesn’t it? And yet it is never mentioned again. The boiler doesn’t fail at a critical moment; the boat sinks because the storm swamps it as water gets in through the loose torpedo holes. The screwdriver doesn’t get shot out of an overheated pipe just in time to sever the hangman’s rope which is supposed to execute Charlie. Nothing! Clearly I am overly obsessed with what was intended to be a throwaway detail, but there it is.

The thing is, as I’ve said before, I have an abiding fondness for vehicles which have a personality of their own, especially if said personality involves being an odds-defying, past-its-prime, borderline-derelict eccentric that always comes through in the end. So I probably paid more attention to the titular boat itself than to any other aspect of The African Queen, for better or worse. (I think for the better.)

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Tales to come

Sorry again about taking a mulligan yesterday. It was something of a perfect storm, starting off the week with the sinking realization that the people I am relying on to help push my project across the finish line are no help at all. And I don’t mean I need their help in the sense of “this big heavy load will be easier to move with assistance, harder to move by myself” I mean it in the sense that “my hands are tied as far as what I’m allowed to do (even now, after all the certification and compliance hoops I’ve been jumping through all dang year) and I need someone else who is duly empowered to take care of it on my behalf, but those people keep asking me questions that I have no answers for, and no way to ascertain the answers, because SEE ABOVE RE: HANDS, TIED”. Combine that with the fact that it barely hit the high 70’s yesterday and yet the air conditioning in the building was cranked up (like it’s late August or something) and altogether I was grinding my teeth and hunching my shoulders and losing feeling in my fingers and eventually my eyeballs and sinuses felt like they were going to pop and I couldn’t focus on much of anything. I was pretty useless when I got home, too, but some sleep put me right and today I’m trying to maintain calm as I continue banging my head against the wall. So far, so so.

At any rate, that’s more or less yesterday’s news. Today what I should be blogging about is Sean Howe’s Marvel Comics: The Untold Story, which was something I assigned myself as SUMMER SCHOOL make-up work (everyone was reading the book late last year, which sure enough was about when I got my copy, though it’s been languishing on my shelf ever since). The problem, for once, is not that I have too little to say about a book, but that I have far, far too much to cram into a single blog post. Long story short, Howe’s book is really very good. I’ve read plenty of books about Marvel Comics which were more or less produced by or with the blessings of the House of Ideas, and thus which were rah-rah pro-Marvel all the way. I’ve also read a few books about the comics industry as a whole, which shift the partisan/factual balance but also tend to mainly cover the early years of the artform in the late Depression and World War II era through maybe the mid-70’s or so; in other words the birth of superheroes, the disappearance of superheroes, the resurgence of superheroes (which is the point at which Marvel Comics as we know it emerges), some superhero experimentation and then the settling into the status quo.

The problem with the general overview approach described above is that they tend to start wrapping up the history lesson right at the point where I was born or was a little kid, which means everything comics-related I ever experienced first-hand isn’t covered. And the problem with the Marvel-centric stuff is, obviously, the difference between marketing materials and actual historical-critical analysis. So I’m grateful for Howe’s book because not only does it focus on Marvel’s history as a warts-and-all, yet still surprisingly non-judgmental, subject of fascination, but it covers developments well into the 21st century, which allows me to compare my own mental notes of what I was reading in middle school, high school, college, and even later.

I have a couple of quibbles with Howe’s take on Marvel, but only here and there. Overall, again, it’s a great book, even-handed and illuminating. Howe gets it, he’s clearly a fan and he often makes points by citing examples of comics by name without over-explaining the reference, which probably means if someone had never read a comic book in their life and tried to read this book a lot of it would go over their head, but for someone who is obsessive about the inner workings of a fictional universe published serially for fifty-some years, it’s just about perfect. (And there’s surprisingly little middle ground between those two extreme examples, I reckon.) Honestly there are fewer things that I out-and-out disagree with than there are things which I can’t believe Howe left out of his story, although I do understand that making the book 800 pages rather than 400 probably would have cut down on its sales numbers somewhat.

I’ll always self-identify as a huge and lifelong Green Lantern nerd, and GL of course belongs to DC Comics, the Superman-Batman-Wonder Woman side of the great Big Two divide. But I read a lot of Marvel Comics growing up. A LOT. And there was a time when it was assumed that you were either a Marvel person or a DC person, and I was without a doubt a Marvel person, as paradoxical as that may sound. You could make the argument that part of our identity as capitalist Americans is wrapped up in being raised to love certain companies and corporations, from their logos to their figureheads, and Marvel Comics was the prime example of that in my misspent youth. I would rather have eaten at a mom-and-pop pizza parlor than at McDonald’s, but I was passionate about Marvel and felt like I had some kind of emotional bond with their public face, Stan Lee (that’s him up above). I have no shortage of both fond and frustrating memories of Marvel from growing up, and no shortage of opinions about them either. And as I said, a surprising number of those memories weren’t really captured in Howe’s book.

So obviously, it falls to me to expand on Howe’s work via this blog, and to tell MY Untold Story about Marvel Comics. Coming soon, probably this fall! (UPDATE: It took until mid-November, but here's where I finally got the ball rolling.) A recurring series of posts of indeterminate length and duration examining the ups and downs of a funnybook publisher as seen through the eyes of a burgeoning geek and big fan. I’m looking forward to it already.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Grrrrrrrrrrr

Work is giving me a bit of a headache today. Metaphorically that's nothing new, but today I'm afraid it's literal.

Hopefully I will be recovered by tomorrow.

Friday, August 16, 2013

Interrobang the Drum Slowly

I’ve mentioned at least once my childhood friend Boomer. When I was talking about the quartet composed of the two of us plus Kingsley and Scud I noted the contrast between the three of them as athletes and myself as decidedly not. I didn’t break that specific point down much further, but Boomer was the one who was the most into sports. He wasn’t necessarily the most gifted natural athlete among the three of them, but he was super-competitive and just loved playing all sorts of sports. Back in fourth and fifth grade (before we even met Kingsley and Scud in middle school) Boomer would invite me over after school and we would play one-on-one basketball in his driveway or whiffleball in his backyard. He would always spot me some outrageous number of points or runs at the outset, and then he would always trounce me in the end. I always thought if I kept at it maybe I would eventually beat him next time, but I never did.

Boomer was also a sports fanatic in terms of following the professional leagues, the kind of kid who could rattle off records and statistics at the drop of a ballcap. Despite having a good head for numbers and a decent capacity for memorization myself, I’ve never devoted much brainspace to retaining prodigious amounts of sports trivia, but Boomer was all over it, more power to him. I’ve always thought that part of the reason for my semi-aversion to memorizing sports stats comes from the fact that a shocking number of records are held by players who were not part of the organizations I happen to root for. SHOCKING, I say again. I know Roger Maris hit 61 home runs in a single season and I know Lou Gherig played in 2,130 consecutive games, and yes I know that both those records have been broken. I’m not saying that the breaking of those records don’t count, of course they do (deservedly!), but the deeper meaning such as it is shifts for me depending on whether we’re talking about the Yankees or anybody else.

Boomer was not one of those weirdos who embraced sports-as-a-whole and didn’t root for any team in particular, or rooted for whichever team was the most dominant at any given time. He was a Jersey boy like me, and he rooted for the Knicks and the Giants and the Mets (nobody’s perfect). I’ll always remember his devotion to the New York Football Giants in particular because of a specific incident one fall when he came over to my house, when we were probably about twelve years old. Boomer was wearing a NY Giants sweatshirt. My dad came home and saw Boomer (we had been friends for years at this point and our families knew each other pretty well) and made a big show of peering intently at the sweatshirt like he couldn’t quite make out the letters. “Gnats? Is that what that says? New York GNATS?” he finally delivered the punchline, in reference to the fact that the most recent Giants game had been an embarrassing blowout loss. And Boomer got the intent of the joke, and if it had been me making the joke he probably would have made an impassioned argument about the overall season and one game not meaning anything about playoff chances and whatnot, but Boomer was really a very polite and respectful kid and was not inclined to talk back to parents. So he just gave my dad a very tight-lipped smile and shook his head, and my dad wandered off muttering, half amused at his own humor and half annoyed at having reminded himself of the previous Sunday’s letdown.

All of which is really just my patented Random AnecdoteTM way of semi-explaining and quasi-apologizing for not commenting much on the Yankees this season. I don’t know that I’m necessarily apologizing to you, Dear Readers, since half of you don’t care about baseball at all and the other know that the only thing worse than a smug Yankees fan clucking that they’ve been in first place for 78 consecutive days and hoping to hurry up and hit the E number so they can rest some starters is a disheartened Yankees fan lamenting that all is not right with the universe. I have deemed it nobler to suffer in silence through this mediocre 2013 campaign, all the moreso because I know there are many fans of teams today that would love to be cheering on a squad four games over .500 at mid-August. I guess I’m apologizing for not being a delirious eternal optimist, for not possessing the spunk of “oh well, they blew an early lead but the season ain’t over yet!” I reject being labeled a fairweather fan since it’s not as though I’m shifting my loyalties to another team when mine struggles, or hate-watching and rooting against them. It’s hard for me to watch them mired in fourth place because they go back and forth following each win with a loss, never getting red hot or ice cold, not because I don’t care but precisely because I care so much and have so much potential happiness invested in the pennant race they are so very not a part of.

(OK and the whole A-Rod cheating banned for life selling out fellow players contract dispute boondoggle is absolutely not helping things.)

Seriously, not only are the Yanks not in first and not really within striking distance (they’re 8 and a half games back with like 42 games to play, and those are some long odds, friends) but they’re not even really within striking distance of the second AL wildcard spot. They’d have to climb past four other teams first, and just by the by two of those teams are the Royals and the Indians?! Come again?! What bizarro universe have I stumbled into?

On the other hand, it’s kind of like stumbling backwards to when I was twelve and the Yankees were terrible, and I barely knew how to make sense of the box scores, the standings, and everything else other than when the Yankees won, my dad was happy, and when they didn’t, he very much was not. And as with so many other things, I guess that’s where I get it from. I’m not sure if that’s the right way to be a fan or not, but it is what I’m working with (and/or against). It is what it is.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

And the parties don't stop

If I were to lay out the itinerary my family stuck to this past weekend you would probably think that my wife and I had gone bonkers. So I feel I should preemptively explain that it was one of those things where we didn’t plan the two-day schedule in a very linear way, but rather kept adding things in because they made sense at the time and/or couldn’t be reasonably accommodated in our calendar any other way. The little guy had been asking when he would get to have another sleepover at his grandparents’ (my in-laws’) house, since he had quite enjoyed the experience last October. We picked the second weekend in August because my wife was working the first and fourth weekends and my in-laws planned to leave on a week’s vacation the third weekend. Then we figured since we were going to be in that neck of the woods, we might as well try to get together with one of my wife’s old friends (and her husband and kids) and that evolved into a plan for Sunday brunch, which was scooted up to breakfast when the little guy was invited to a birthday party taking place Sunday afternoon. My wife and I planned on going out to dinner on Saturday night, since we’d not only be able to avail ourselves of sitters but really, the whole point of sleeping over and grandma and poppop’s is that mom and dad aren’t around and the dynamic is completely different. (Plus: sleeping bags. Last time the little girl was still sleeping in a pack-n-play but this time she had a brand new Minnie Mouse sleeping bag, which was pretty sweet.) And then once we got to town and got to talking to my wife’s dad he pointed out that we still had yet to sample the recently opened hometown microbrewery, which might make a good place for a pre-dinner drink, and the man was just talking good sense.

So that’s more or less how we ended up getting up on Saturday morning, getting everyone ready and packing the car, having lunch, driving to my in-laws, having tea with them as well as a couple of family friends, leaving the two older kids and taking the baby (who mostly slept, sometimes nursed, occasionally goggled and cooed) first to the Center of the Universe Brewing Company, then over to Thai Gourmet, then to a local ice cream parlor (because we had overstayed the closing of the kitchen before we got dessert at the restaurant), and back to the in-laws’ for some sleep. The older kids woke up at something like 5:30 the next morning, and thankfully poppop was willing and able to get up with them, but my wife and the baby and I followed shortly after, got everyone dressed and re-packed the car, met up with our friends at Aunt Sarah’s Pancake House, then hit the highway again (all the kids fell asleep on that leg of the trip) and drove straight to the birthday party, where we stayed for quite a while before finally returning home, feeding the big kids a quick dinner, and then more or less everyone going to bed at the same time.

Don’t get me wrong, it was a fun weekend, and it never felt particularly stressful. I’m still not sure I would have signed up for the whole package all at once if it had been presented to me as such, because it makes me feel old and tired just typing it up after the fact right now, but somehow we managed and I’m glad we did. If it seems like I’m overemphasizing the eating-of-meals aspect of the happenings, that’s probably just indicative of how our life as a family works right now. Everybody’s got to eat, and you really don’t want to have to deal with little kids or especially toddlers who’ve been forced to skip a meal. And though we may be luckier than most in our particular case, when it comes down to it, all kids are somewhat picky eaters, so feeding them requires that much more forethought and planning and whatnot. So we tend to combine socializing with meals because otherwise there would be no time for socializing. And even when we get a little break from the kids, we still tend to celebrate with some kind of eating activity (e.g. going out for sushi) because it’s not as though we can go out and partake in consciousness-altering recreations that leave us unable to pick up the parenting where we left off when we get home.

Anyway, so on Sunday the little guy and little girl had pancakes with whipped cream and chocolate chips for breakfast (technically second breakfast, after they had some fruit and Cheerios at their grandparents’), and then the birthday party was technically lunch as they each had a hot dog, plus cookies and cupcakes and Kool-Aid and candy from the pinata, and then for dinner they had blue box mac and cheese. Good times! But if the birthday party was the centerpiece of the day (it pretty much was) then the day’s menu was all of a piece. Usually I’m more interested in documenting the funny and profound things my kids say, versus other people’s kids, but the birthday girl (whom our little guy met in a toddler gymboree-type session years ago, which was also where my wife met the girl’s mom, and so they’re all friends, and I finally met the dad at this party and we spent a good bit of time in his basement where he showed off some of his rare comics and action figures - our families clearly need to hang out more) … where was I? Right, the birthday girl, according to her own mother, when asked what she wanted for her birthday party outlined her grand vision as follows: “A bucket of Sprite, a pinata full of Smarties, and 64 friends.” And the end result came pretty close to that! Sugar, more sugar, and your buddies; seems like a reasonable approximation of a childhood idyll to me.

Somehow (probably because it takes us a long time to get ourselves and our brood motivated and moving) we were the last guests to leave the party other than immediate family, and of course right as we were trying to herd our kids toward the door the little guy had taken an intense interest in the birthday girl's Batcave playset. I had to assure him that he could come back to play with his friend (and her Batman toys) some other time, and then I had to make him say happy birthday and goodbye, and of course he took that opportunity to tell his little friend he could come over and play Batman with her some other time. And his friend's delighted response was "Yeah! Maybe we could have a sleepover!"

I deferred to the birthday girl's mother on that one. Perhaps by the time our little guy has his birthday party in a couple weeks, that notion will be forgotten. If not, I guess we'll all just sort it out then.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

The Curious Case of Christopher Lee

So hey, speaking of people who, like Mick Jagger, are remarkably spry, let’s chat a bit about Christopher Lee. Dude is 91 years old!!! Just the fact that he's still with us and was still making movies is nothing short of awe-inspiring. Lately I’ve been thinking about his gloriously prolific career.

(No big mystery as to what set me off thinking about Lee: I recently started working my way through Martin Scorsese's film adaptation of Hugo. Yes, working my way through, slowly, as I don't find it terribly interesting despite its recent honorific as one of the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die. Maybe that distinction was bestowed due to some seriously amazing 3-D cinematography, and it loses something as I watch it incrementally on my Kindle because it's free on Amazon Prime. Anyway, forget the debatable merits of the movie, Christopher Lee has a small part as the train station bookseller. So here we are.)

Christopher Lee's career is exemplary in another sense, in my highly subjective estimation, besides sheer length and quantity of movies. Because his array of roles over the years happens to encompass certain foundational touchstones of the geek universe. It's become more and more trendy this millennium (or maybe even starting in the 90's) for serious artistic actors to do work in what were formerly the ghettoized genres: sci-fi, fantasy, horror, &c. Thus it's not hard to find a beloved Oscar contender in ridiculous, non-human makeup playing someone with a silly name. But Christopher Lee has hit the trifecta in just about the most iconic of possible ways:

Horror? It all goes back to Horror of Dracula, the Hammer Films classic where Lee plays the titular baddest monster of them all.

Fantasy? I don't think I'll get much opposition to the statement that the Lord of the Rings is the gold standard of fantasy epics, and of course Lee plays Saruman the Sorcerer in that trilogy (plus The (ongoingly bloated) Hobbit!)

Sci-Fi? Star Wars, for better or worse, is the 900-pound gorilla in that room, and Lee got to play the fallen Jedi Count Dooku in a couple of those. Yes, they were prequels, which don’t hold a candle to the original trilogy. But it still counts!

And, you know what, just for good measure let's throw in The Man With The Golden Gun, Scaramanga!

Because the Bond franchise is huge and venerable and you know you love it.

You can hold up your Ian McKellan, who has the one-two punch of Magneto and Gandalf on his C.V., or for that matter Patrick Stewart’s indelible turns as both Professor X and Captain Jean-Luc Picard. But Star Trek is not Star Wars (and even if you throw in Stewart’s turn as Gurney from Dune, I still don’t think you quite get to Galaxy Far, Far Away levels), and McKellan apparently has yet to find a sci-fi property that really does it for him, just as Stewart hasn’t done much fantasy (not since he played Guinevere’s father in Excalibur, anyway). Don’t get me wrong, I respect and enjoy the nine hells out of McKellan and Stewart in just about everything they do. I’m simply pointing out that Christopher Lee has a deeper resume of roles than either of them if we’re specifically talking about embodying major characters from the all-time legendary geeky franchises.

But let’s not be too hasty in moving past the counter-examples of Sir Patrick and Sir Ian, since they do loom large on a stage as yet untrod by Christopher Lee: comic book adaptations. This. Is. Mindboggling. The really juicy parts of comic book stories are, of course, the villains, and Christopher Lee is basically typecast as a villain pretty much every time. Yet he has never played a super-villain. We’ve gotten everyone from Peter Fonda as Mephisto to Kevin Bacon as Sebastian Shaw to Willem Defoe as the Green Goblin to Liam Neeson as R’as al-Ghul - and that’s just the 21st century stuff, I could go back to Christopher Walken as Max Schreck and Terence Stamp as General Zod and on and on and on. How has Christopher Lee never even been considered for any of these roles (as I am operating under the assumption that had his name even been breathed, he would have gotten the part)?

(Technically, Lee was cast in a 1979 CBS made-for-tv movie entitled, I swear, Captain America II: Death Too Soon. He played a character invented for the movie named General Miguel, who is not a costumed, super-powered villain but just a “revolutionary terrorist” who plans to hold an American city hostage and meets an untimely/grisly end in his showdown with Cap. I had no idea this even existed until I ran across it on Wikipedia while fact-checking this rant. Now of course I kinda want to buy myself a copy. Anyway.)

If anything, comic book movies are becoming more and more dominant in the pop culture arena, with Marvel’s Avengers leading the charge. Presumably they’re going to be cranking out a couple of movies a year for at least the next ten years, so there should be plenty of time to correct this gap in Lee’s filmography and secure his standing as Greatest Geek Movie Actor Of All Time. I’ve been trying to think of various heavies I could see Lee bringing to life in his mid-90’s; most comic book characters tend to skew young, with the heroes being young adults and the baddies being maybe middle-aged authority figures, but there are some senior citizens in Marvel’s villainous ranks. I’ve just about narrowed it down to five:

5 - Silvermane

This is never going to happen, let’s just get that clear right up front. Silvermane is one of my pet characters and probably lacks the crossover appeal to be greenlit as the villain in a 200 million dollar blockbuster. The high concept is magnificently off the chain, though. He’s basically a cross between Robocop and Montgomery Burns, if Mr. Burns were the head of an organized crime family. Technically he’s more of a Spider-Man/Daredevil opponent, but he could play off the version of Iron Man that exists in the cinematic Marvel universe, and there were comics storylines where he created an alliance between his mafia and HYDRA, aka the goons last seen in the Captain America movie. Still, it’s a longshot. But it would be cool.

4 - High Evolutionary

This seems a little more plausible for the movies, since the High Evolutionary is an archetypal mad scientist, Marvel’s answer to Doctor Moreau, basically, if Moreau also had a rad exoskeleton and super-powers controlling everything vaguely related to genetics. The High Evolutionary not only hyper-evolved animals to sentience but trained them in codes of chivalry and made them his knights, complete with flying steeds (hoverbikes) and atomic lances (self-explanatory). For some reason, the High Evolutionary is kind of a joke amongst a lot of comics fandom, possibly because his New Men were given names like Sir Lyan (the lion) and Sir Tygar (the tiger) and Sir Porga (the pig. yeah.) Those ridiculous names aside, though, the High Evolutionary was always written with a certain amount of gravitas (not to mention a lifespan prolonged by superscience, something something telomeres) which Lee could obviously sell. Oh, and the High Evolutionary was originally a Thor antagonist, and he’s fought the Avengers as well.

3 - Baron Zemo

Another bad guy with a long backstory! Baron Zemo is one of the Nazi villains from the World War II segment of Captain America’s heroic exploits. Christopher Lee is probably exactly the right age to play him! He’s actually one of the rare cases of a legacy villain, where Baron Heinrich Zemo eventually died and passed all of his wealth and title (and evil superweapons) on to his son Helmut Zemo. I’d be fine with an Avengers movie where Lee played the elder Zemo in a few flashback scenes and someone else (?) played the inheritor of the villainous mantle, and subsequently organized the Masters of Evil to confront the Avengers, just like in the comics.

2 - Count Nefaria

You may have noticed that both the High Evolutionary and Baron Zemo sport full facemasks (and both in purple, no less) which is often a disincentive to an actor taking a role. (See James Purefoy leaving V For Vendetta mid-production, replaced by Hugo Weaving. Oh man, Hugo Weaving - aka Agent Smith from The Matrix aka Elrond from Lord of the Rings aka Red Skull in Captain America - is kind of nipping at Lee’s heels here, isn’t he? If Weaving winds up in Episodes VII, VIII or IX of Star Wars my head will asplode.) Granted, they always find ways for Robert Downey Jr. to lift his faceplate a lot in the Iron Man flicks, but maybe we should be looking for roles involving fewer workarounds for Lee.

Hence, Count Nefaria! Like Silvermane, he has ties to organized crime, and like Baron Zemo, he’s an aristocrat (Italian), and like the High Evolutionary, he’s extraordinarily powerful, in essence an evil Superman (strong and fast and indestructible and able to fly and shoot lasers and all kinds of crazy crap). He’s fought everyone from the Avengers to the X-Men, and he even looks a bit like Lee, what with his salt-and-pepper ‘do and his penchant for facial hair. Maybe, technically, his comics backstory would make him a little too young to be embodied by our nonagenarian, but I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: things change from the source material to the screen and that’s OK. I’d love to see an Avengers Vs. Count Nefaria movie, really, but I think there’s an indisputably better choice for Christopher Lee to finally play a supervillain ...

1 - Immortus

Who the heck else are you going to cast as the undying manipulator and time traveler who is the future, semi-reformed version of one of the Avengers greatest foes? Frankly I would consider it twenty dollars well spent just to see Christopher Lee wearing that gigantic helmet-crown up on the big screen. Immortus has literally seen it all, from one end of the history of the universe to the other, and takes no guff from anyone, not even his younger and more volatile self, Kang. An Avengers Vs. Kang movie should rightly be the culmination of an Avengers trilogy (not to mention the lifelong dream of any devoted fanboy) and we already know that Avengers 2 is going to be about Ultron (the only other Avengers villain on par with Loki and Kang) so this is a total no-brainer.

I eagerly await e-mails from Christopher Lee’s agent, as well as Joss Whedon to discuss potential plot points. Let's make this happen.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Don't drink, don't smoke, what do you do? (Rock Star)

I had scheduled another dispatch from SUMMER SCHOOL for today’s blog entry, and planned on analyzing Jackie Collins’s Rock Star (another book from DFW’s Literary Analysis: Prose Fiction syllabus). But I find myself not really having enough to say about the novel to carry an entire post. Rock Star is not very good, but then again it’s not exactly bad enough to really tear into with any amount of gleefully eviscerating snark. (Or maybe that’s just a reflection of the mood I’m in, given current conditions at work and a low ebb of energy in between one very busy weekend and another.)

I’d never read any Jackie Collins before, but it was my understanding that her novels had a reputation as enticingly salacious trash. Maybe Rock Star is an outlier, but I was fairly underwhelmed. It’s clearly trying to be risque, but in the safest, tamest possible ways. I find myself in a critical dilemma: do I say that the only people I can imagine finding this novel exhilarating and transgressive would be bored, dead-inside suburban housewives from the booniest parts of the heartland, OR do I reject that stereotype as so absurd as to be non-existent in reality, and therefore say I can’t imagine a single soul on the planet finding this exhilarating and transgressive?

The title is a bit of a misnomer, as the story (such as it is) really centers on three different rock stars: Kris, an English bloke who combines natural charisma and musical talent with a drive to be the biggest act in the world; Rafealla, a biracial beauty who grows up in France and England and stumbles into a singing career after a string of failed romances; and Bobby, an African-American who goes from child-star has-been to soul legend. Kris never does drugs, though he does have lots of sex, although after an early shotgun marriage (which he later gets out of when she cheats on him) he always insists on using protection with his partners. Rafealla also never does drugs, and has a fair amount of sex but is a serial monogamist at least. Bobby does do drugs and drinks a lot too, and is presumably having lots of magically consequence-free sex, and at one point is beaten by a rival so badly that he goes blind, although it turns out to be a psychosomatic blindness which goes away when most conducive to the plot. At the end of the book, Bobby ends up happily married to his personal assistant and Kris and Rafealla are making romantic overtures toward their own happy ending together. It’s unrealistic soap opera gussied up as even more unrealistic glamour-porn, although “porn” does feel like too strong a word for something that seems like it could have been dreamed up by a twelve-year-old girl (particularly one who had never met a person with a British accent or a black person, ever, but that may be neither here nor there).

The book is set on the occasion of a private command concert being performed by the three main characters, as they all owe favors to the sleazy rich villain. The bulk of the story is a sequence of flashbacks showing how all three rock stars grew up and launched their careers and became who they are today, and then someone tries to rob the sleazy rich villain and the rock stars get embroiled in a hostage situation, and then they get out of it, and then the aforementioned wedding and flirtations take place in an epilogue. Throughout, no character feels an emotion without Collins bald-faced stating what it is, and no one ever shows an iota of complexity in their personality. The main characters are basically decent people who want to be successful musicians, and everyone else is either a cartoonishly selfish obstacle or a helpful plot device. Almost no one on any page acts or speaks like a living, breathing human being. It’s escapism, obviously, and therefore shouldn’t necessarily be beholden to rigorous standards of realism, but at a certain point it goes well beyond wish-fulfillment and into a kind of brain-dead reverie which is almost fascinating in and of itself.

Maybe allowances must be made for the fact that Rock Star came out in 1988, during the Just Say No era, nearly a full decade before Behind the Music taught all of us that there is no high road in the entertainment world and everybody, regardless of intentions, eventually ends up in the patented Nightmare Descent Into Booze and Pills and Trouble With the Law. As an early attempt to peel back the curtain and demonstrate what life would be like for the princes and princesses of the rock and roll universe, it’s a cute artifact. Not least because there are several passages in which Kris compares himself to his idol Mick Jagger and wonders if he still wants to try hauling his own aging carcass around on tour when he’s that old. Again, this was 25 years ago. Just sayin’.


Moves like jagger? What’s a jagger?

OK, so, dumb book, dumber even than I expected. And somehow I squeezed a post out of it, how about that! Tomorrow, back to the more familiar environs of my obsessive wheelhouse(s).

Monday, August 12, 2013

(Not) Makin’ Copies

Right this second the desk in my cubicle is a mess, with various documents and diagrams spread from one side to the other and overlaid with a multitude of neon green post-it notes. I was trying to find various pieces of documentation ranging from nine months old to about four years old, because apparently that is my job now: keeping track of other people’s process paper trails which I’ve been looped in on and had the foresight to file away somewhere.

So for today’s installment of You Are Going To Think I’m Making This All Up But Really I’m Not, here’s where things stand: I was issued aq new access card for my classified workstation around mid-morning on Wednesday of last week. The new card worked, I got on to the network, checked the machine itself to make sure the movable hard drive with all my documentation files to be moved was in place and readable, and it was, so I was ready to move forward with my other this-is-my-job-now: copying hundreds of gigs of files from one place to another.

I knew that the files had to be relocated somewhere network-accessible so that the application we’re recreating could read them and make them visible to the various end users. And I knew some likely places on the network where I could drop all the files. But just before I initiated the first salvo of broadband traffic, I decided it would be better safe than sorry to reach out to my contacts inside the I.T. department and ask them exactly where they would prefer I stash the files, if indeed they had a preference. The last thing I wanted was to start (or even finish) copying all the files to one directory, only to learn I really should have been copying them to another and be forced to do just that, duplicating all my efforts.

So, the question was posed. And the answer? Whoa, whoa, whoa, how much data am I trying to force onto the network? The answer is, of course, more or less the same amount I specified when this whole doomed project got underway back in November. It’s actually a little bit more because, shocker, the system has grown in nine months. But I was told last fall that my storage needs were “no problem” so … surely this is not a big deal, right? Surely I am not going to be delayed now by a mad scramble to find suitable memory allocations for something that’s been in the works for thirty-six weeks or something like that, right?

Do not ask questions you do not want to hear the answers to. Words to live by.

So yeah, it fell upon me to go digging through my old paperwork and try to find anything establishing a precedent for giving hundreds of gigs of space to our application, basically to prove that what I thought was already in the works should have been in the works all along. And I pulled together what scraps of documentation I could and dutifully sent them along, but now once again I am hurrying up and waiting for someone to get back to me and say all right, here is your destination directory, feel free to fill it up. Does the fun ever stop? Again, maybe don't ask questions and then you won't have to hear the answers.

Friday, August 9, 2013

Fairy Tale Friday

A while ago my Little Bro was telling me about doing some yardwork and thinking about fairy tales and woodland spirits and so on. He asked me if I could write a story along those lines. Here's what I came up with.

The Woodcarver and His Tree Stump

Once upon a time there lived a husband and wife who made their home in a cottage in a clearing in the forest. The husband, whose name was Wyn, earned his living carving wood into objects of all sorts, useful and beautiful. The wife, whose name was Lorna, brought in money as well by growing vegetables and herbs and flowers in the gardens around their humble home.

In the front yard of their cottage was a large tree stump, a little less than a foot tall, a little more than three feet across. The stump had always been there, and what had happened to the tree it once supported, no one knew. It had many rings on its surface which showed how the forest had abided the years, through rains and snows, floods and droughts. It had gnarled roots that sank deep into the earth, with knuckled knots that poked up through the ground here and there. Nothing but spiky grass and a few toadstools would grow around the stump, though Lorna had tried many times to add another vegetable patch or flower bed near it, to no avail.

One Monday morning, as Lorna was about to leave for town to sell some squash and peppers at market, she turned to her husband and said, “Wyn, it is time we were rid of the stump in the front yard. I want you to dig it up today. By the time I return from town I want it to be gone, and perhaps this weekend I will dig the rows for a new garden there.”

“Very well, my love,” Wyn agreed, and Lorna left for town.

When Lorna came home late that afternoon, Wyn was sitting in his rocking chair on the front porch of the cottage. He was carving the headpiece of a chair for the constable to sit in at the courthouse. And the tree stump was still in the middle of the front yard. Lorna walked past the stump and walked up to Wyn and said, “Why is the stump still here? Did you forget that I asked you to dig it up?”

“No, my love, I did not forget,” Wyn answered. “But then I also remembered that the stump might have its uses.”

“It’s no use to us,” Lorna insisted.

“No,” Wyn conceded, “But it may be useful to a great brown bear.”

“How would a bear use a stump?” Lorna asked.

Wyn thought for a moment. “As a stepstool?”

Lorna sighed. “Wyn, tomorrow I am going back to town to sell some of my flowers. When I am in town tomorrow I want you to dig up the stump, and by the time I return I want it to be gone.”

“Very well,” Wyn agreed.

The next morning, Lorna left for town with a basket of fresh-cut mums and sunflowers, and when she returned in the late afternoon, Wyn was sitting in his rocking chair on the front porch of the cottage. He was carving a new wooden leg for the butcher, who had worn out the old wooden leg he had used for many years. And the tree stump was still in the middle of the front yard. Lorna walked past the stump and walked up to Wyn and said, “Why is that stump still here? And please do not say that you left it for the bears.”

“No, my love, not for the bears,” Wyn explained, “but I also remembered that the stump might be useful to a gnome.”

“How would a gnome use a stump?” Lorna asked.

Wyn thought for a moment. “As a chair?”

Lorna sighed, more heavily than the day before. “Wyn, tomorrow I am going back to town to sell some of my herbs. When I am in town tomorrow I want you to dig up the stump, and by the time I return I want it to be gone.”

“Very well,” Wyn agreed.

The next morning, Lorna left for town with a basket full of tiny satchels, some full of dried lavender and others full of fresh parsley, still others with basil or rosemary, and when she returned in the late afternoon, Wyn was sitting in his rocking chair on the front porch of the cottage. He was carving a mask for the local theatre troupe. And the tree stump was still in the middle of the front yard. Lorna walked past the stump and walked up to Wyn and said, “Why is that stump still here? And please do not say that you left it for the gnomes.”

“No, my love, not for the gnomes,” Wyn explained, “but I also remembered that the stump might be useful to a woodsprite.”

“How would a woodsprite use a stump?” Lorna asked.

Wyn thought for a moment. “As a table?”

Lorna sighed, even more heavily than the day before. “Wyn, tomorrow I am going back to town to sell some of my pies. When I am in town tomorrow I want you to dig up the stump, and by the time I return I want it to be gone.”

“Very well,” Wyn agreed. And Lorna spent part of the evening gathering fruit from the trees in a small orchard behind their house, and part of the evening baking them into pies.

The next morning, Lorna left for town with a basket full of delicious pies, and when she returned in the late afternoon, Wyn was sitting in his rocking chair on the front porch of the cottage. He was carving a pipe for himself. And the tree stump was still in the middle of the front yard. Lorna walked past the stump and walked up to Wyn and said, “Why is that stump still here? And please do not say that you left it for the woodsprites.”

“No, my love, not for the woodsprites,” Wyn explained, “but I also remembered that the stump might be useful to a beetle.”

“How would a beetle use a stump?” Lorna asked.

Wyn thought for a moment. “As a house?”

Lorna sighed, and rolled her eyes, and shook her head at her husband. “Wyn, tomorrow I am not going back to town. I am staying right here to watch you dig up the stump. I only want it to be gone.”

“Very well,” Wyn agreed.

So when Friday morning arrived, Wyn and Lorna walked out to the front yard together. But standing before their house was a hunchbacked old witch. Her long matted hair was the color of old cobwebs, her mottled skin was dried and wrinkled as a rotten crabapple, and her dress was patches and tatters the dull shades of dead leaves. She scowled at the husband and wife and rasped, “I am tired of living in a cold damp cave full of spiders and mice. I want to live in a nice cottage with vegetable gardens and flowerbeds, so I am taking yours. Begone, and be quick about it, or I will make you regret it.”

Lorna knew not what to say to the witch, but Wyn crossed his arms over his chest. “You cannot take our home,” he denied her.

“Very well!” the witch shrieked. “Then by all my power, I summon the great brown bear! He will maul you both bloody, and I will have your house then!” She raised her cadaverous hands and for a moment they burned with bright yellow fire. Soon a crashing sound echoed through the woods, and a great brown bear lumbered into the front yard. “Bear!” the witch raged. “Kill the man and his wife!”

The bear looked at Wyn and Lorna, then looked at the witch, then sat on his shaggy backside. “This man did me a kindness,” the bear growled. “I was hunting through this yard four nights ago when I lost the scent I had been following among the musk of the ground. I stood on my hind legs, but still could not regain the scent. Finally I climbed on the tree stump he keeps in his yard and stretched my nose high in the air, where the wafting scent was waiting for me to follow. Because of him I had a stepstool when I needed it, and so I will not hurt him.”

The witch snarled, “So be it! Then by all my power, I summon the gnomes! They will blight your crops and turn them to poison, and you shall flee or you shall starve, and I will have your house then!” Again she raised her hands and for a moment they burned with dark red fire. Soon a small man with a long white beard emerged from the woods. “Gnome!” the witch cackled. “Spoil every growing thing the man and his wife have tended!”

The gnome looked at Wyn and Lorna, then looked at the witch, then scratched his beard. “This man did me a kindness,” the gnome drawled. “I passed through this yard three nights ago, as I had been tending all the wild green things that grow in the forest. I was weary, and longing for a place to sit, so I rested for a while on the tree stump he keeps in his yard. Because of him I had a chair when I needed it, and so I will do him and his gardens no harm.”

The witch howled, “So be it! Then by all my power, I summon the woodsprites! They will beguile you and lead you away with their mesmerizing lights, and you will disappear into the darkest depths of the forest never to return, and I will have your house then!” Yet again she raised her hands and for a moment they burned with pale green fire. Soon a trio of tiny women with fluttering wings flew out of the woods. “Woodsprites!” the witch yelped. “Entrance the man and his wife to abandon this house!”

The woodsprites looked at Wyn and Lorna, then looked at the witch, all the while hovering in mid-air. “This man did us a kindness,” one of the woodsprites chirped. “My sisters and I were winging through this yard two nights ago, gathering the sparkle of dewdrops and the shine of moonbeams and the glow of fireflies. We needed to tally our collection, so we stood around the tree stump he keeps in his yard and spread our harvest on its surface. Because of him we had a table when we needed it, and so we will not cause him pain.”

The witch gnashed her rotten teeth, “So be it! Then by all my power, I summon the beetles! They will burrow into the timbers of your house and bring it crashing down, for if I cannot have it, then no one shall! And then they will burrow into your flesh and strip you to the bones, and I will bring your bare skulls back to my cave as cups!” Once again she raised her hands and for a moment they burned with terrible black fire. Soon a line of tiny beetles, each one as dark and glossy as a drop of oil, trundled through the yard. The leader of the line climbed a long blade of grass in front of the witch. “Beetles!” the witch cackled. “Destroy this house and devour the man and his wife!”

The beetle looked at Wyn and Lorna, then looked at the witch, then waggled his antennae. “This man did me the greatest kindness,” the beetle clicked. “Last night my mate and I were chased into this yard by a ravenous bluejay, but we were able to escape the beak by hiding within the tree stump he keeps in his yard. And deep within that sheltering haven, my mate has laid her eggs and will raise our young. Because of him I had a house when I needed it, and so I will be forever grateful. I will not let anyone threaten him.”

“Nor will I,” the gnome added.

“Nor will we,” the woodsprites chimed.

“Nor will I,” the great brown bear rumbled.

All at once the witch was surrounded by the creatures of the forest. The woodsprites dazzled the witch’s eyes with magenta beams of summer sunsets and blue shards of winter constellations, and the gnome commanded grasping vines of thorns and brambles to scratch at her arms. The beetles swarmed her legs and bit her skin raw, and the great brown bear swiped at her back with his mighty claws. The witch ran screaming back to her cave full of spiders and mice, and was never seen again.

Wyn turned to Lorna and said, “I am sorry that I did not dig up the stump, but if you want …” And Lorna kissed him to stop him from saying another word. From that day on the tree stump remained in the cottage’s front yard, bearing these words which Wyn carved into it: For Any and All To Use Whenever Needed.

THE END

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Come on, get happy

When our first child was born, my wife and I could scarcely believe that we were parents to a healthy baby boy. Actually, for a little while there we were on the verge of believing he was not so healthy because one of his newborn bloodtests came back positive for a rare, debilitating disorder, but they re-tested and found it had been a false positive, to our palpable relief. Maybe it was that initial experience (along with the little guy’s touch of jaundice), or maybe it was that plus a combination of other factors (my wife and I being each other’s second chance at marriage, our late start on having kids, the long and winding road from deciding to procreate to actually managing it, the pregnancy complications for which the OB recommended bedrest, &c.) that all made the sensation of holding our baby in our arms feel too good to be true.

All parents want their kids to be healthy and happy, and in our case we were lucky enough to have dodged a whole bunch of things we wouldn’t have been able to control, and our son was pronounced healthy at every turn past that first false alarm. So perhaps we doubled down on the happy part. We were resolute in our commitment to the little guy never knowing a moment of unhappiness, and since he bawled when we put him down (as most/all babies do) we therefore rarely (if ever) put him down. We were not conscious followers of or evangelizers for the philosophy of baby-wearing, but we practiced our own modified homegrown version of it nonetheless. It was exhausting, but still easier to bear than listening to our baby cry.

Eventually we all got over it. The little guy wanted to explore his surroundings on his own and didn’t want to be held constantly, and we were concurrently ready to let go a little, so that all worked out. At this point, one of my number one pieces of advice for new parents would be that babies do cry and there’s nothing wrong with that, and it is in fact perfectly all right to let them cry sometimes. If you can be there for them and meet their (perceived) needs the vast majority of the time, then every once in a while letting them fuss on the floor while you take care of some other pressing demand for your attention will do them no lasting harm. In fact, it will toughen you up to the sound and toughen the baby up to a reality that does not revolve around them. Win-win. I speak from learning this in a roundabout way, but there you go.

At any rate, the point being that the early going of the little guy’s life was suffused with a certain nervous tension, and keeping him constantly soothed and content was one manifestation of that. And he did not evaporate! Despite the irrational yet insistent undercurrent of “hard come, easy go” nagging in our new-parent brains that because we had wanted him so much for so long that he would disappear if we blinked, those fears were never realized. So when our daughter was born, we were once again resolute, but this time in a different direction: we would relax more. We would have faith that healthy babies do not vanish in a puff of smoke if sufficient willpower is not focused on them at all times. We would similarly have faith that her occasional crying would not lay the groundwork for her bitterly resenting her parents later in life. We would, in short, enjoy the ride a lot more the second time.

And then, of course, when the little girl was losing her birth weight and then some as a newborn at home my wife and I reminded each other not to panic, to chill and let nature take its course. So that when we went to the next regularly scheduled pediatrician’s visit, we were promptly scolded for not bringing our new baby in sooner because she had in fact lost too much weight. Suddenly we had to take aggressive corrective action to get things back on track. We did, she was fine again shortly thereafter, but it was a disorienting experience, throwing out of balance the been-there-done-that certitude we had recently summoned up.

None of which is to say that we didn’t end up enjoying the ride with our daughter, or that we didn’t enjoy it at all with her older brother. We are in fact still enjoying said rides. There were ups and downs, but in some ways those tend to obscure my memories of the kids’ babyhoods somewhat. I remember feeling anxious, or guilty, or overwhelmed (along with feeling overjoyed and grateful and delighted and any number of other things on any given day) and that makes it hard for me to remember clearly what their emotional dispositions were like. I seem to remember the little guy having a certain wary, observational attitude most of the time before he could walk and talk. My wife and I have always attached the descriptor “intense” to our daughter. How much of that is genuinely accurate, and how much is projection? I really don’t know how to answer that.

But I do know we’re on baby number three. And, as you would surely hope, we’ve arrived at a good balance point between abject terror and overconfident nonchalance. Although that may be a default position that we’ve backed into; with three kids under age five to supervise, often with no backup as only one parent is at home with them while the other one is at work, neither my wife nor I have the energy or cognitive capacity to be particularly resolute about anything one way or the other. Everything is a nice happy medium because there isn’t any other feasible choice.

But speaking of happy, man oh man does the baby seem to be the happiest kid so far. I just copped to the faulty unreliability of my own recollections, but still, I do not remember his older siblings being quite as jovial as he has proven to be. He smiles a lot, he laughs a lot, and he’s just generally pleasant. Not that the other two never giggled or grinned, it’s not night and day, simply a question of degree, but it is strikingly noticeable (and, for what it’s worth, my wife doesn’t disagree with the assessment).

As always, this could all be a perceptual illusion, or it could be due to a myriad of minor factors. This is our first child who’s never spent a moment in daycare, since we now have a full-time sitter who comes to our house. My wife and I believe (and are asking exactly no one to disabuse us of this notion, thanks) that daycare was on balance good for our two older children, building up everything from their pro-social tendencies to their immune systems, but we’ve always acknowledged that elements of it were stressful. Probably stressful for the kids, too! (Rim shot.) So maybe the baby loves being a homebody. Or maybe a certain amount of natural inclination toward a happy outlook is written into every human being’s DNA, and the baby hit the jackpot there. Or maybe his parents are legitimately happier now than we’ve ever been before, and it rubs off. Or maybe there’s no reason! Sometimes things just are the way they are, and it’s not as though a chubby five-month-old who positively beams when you make eye contact with him is an enigma that demands explication.