Thursday, October 31, 2013

The maddest dash

So the plan for tonight is that I will head home after work on my usual train, which gets me to my door between 5 and 5:15. I’ll pay the babysitter and gather up the kids and grab a bag specially packed by my wife this morning and get back on the road, to head over to my buddy Clutch’s house, which is where we traditionally start our trick-or-treating since his neighborhood is full of family residences all built right on top of each other, and thus very convenient for door-to-door-to-door outings with maximum efficiency. (Not to mention the fact that the whole neighborhood goes all out for Halloween, with elaborate lawn displays and interactive candy dispensaries and whatnot.) Barring any hellacious traffic disasters we should get to my buddy’s house before dark, and therefore before the trick-or-treating can begin, which is just as well because that’s the point at which I will need to try to convince my kids to eat something not fashioned entirely out of high fructose corn syrup. This in spite of the fact that I’m sure all they will want to do is get into their costumes and/or play with all the other kids gathering under Clutch’s roof. (Well, the little guy and little girl, at least. The baby will probably be somewhat indifferent as to when or if he gets dressed up. Regardless.)

At some point my wife will meet up with us, since her current place of employment is town-adjacent to Clutch’s neighborhood and she’ll head over right after she gets off work. This may or may not be in time to help me convince my son that having a couple of bites of pizza aligns more closely with his best interests than jumping into his Buzz Lightyear space ranger uniform. Honestly, it could go either way.

I’m curious to see how long my kids last on the trick-or-treating, particularly the little girl. They’re clearly going to be up past their bedtime (the aforementioned pre-packed bag will of course have pajamas within) but I’m not sure if they’ll be manic well into the beginning of the car ride home, or if they’ll start to fade around their usually scheduled appointment with their PillowPals.

I am happy to report, though, that pretty much everyone is healthy enough to enjoy Halloween, which was a touch-and-go prospect this time last week. The little guy skated through with nary a symptom, and the little girl and the baby seemed to have come through to the other side of the worst of their respective afflictions (more or less, though they both got flu shots on Tuesday, and who knows if some delayed adverse reaction is in the offing). And the weather report for tonight anticipates that it will be mostly dry and not terribly cold, which is reassuring even if I am rationally certain that going out and about in the dampest of chills has nothing to do with infection. Confidence for my own sake is one thing, but for my kids I’d just as soon minimize the risks, even against old wives’ tales.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Anti-artifice (Nosferatu the Vampyre)

As SPOOKTOBERFEST draws to its inevitable close, and 1001 Movies Blog Club day rolls around yet again, I invite you to consider with me Werner Herzog’s Nosferatu the Vampyre. I must warn you, the way may be treacherous.

No, seriously, I find this to be one of the hardest reviews I’ve had to write for the Club so far, and a lot of that has to do with the yawning chasm between what I expected to get out of the experience of the film and where I ended up. On many levels, Nosferatu the Vampyre should be the kind of movie I gobble up with a spoon and then lick the bowl and ask for more. A gothic horror movie (which is one of my favorite genres), directed by Herzog (whose genius I fervently admire), and starring Klaus Kinski (generally a safe bet to deliver an insanely committed performance) as the titular lord of the undead. What’s not to love? Furthermore, it’s technically a remake, updating F.W. Murnau’s classic Nosferatu fifty-some years later, which is the kind of artistic endeavor that fascinates me, like a good rock and roll cover song. It was a labor of love for Herzog, who thought Murnau’s silent film was a masterpiece and wanted nothing more than to reverently homage the predecessor film.

However, Nosferatu the Vampyre did absolutely nothing for me. I was waiting for the movie to dig its claws into me, but that never happened, and I gradually realized that I was getting really bored with it. And then it ended, and I tried looking back on it as a whole and figuring out what had just happened and where it had all gone wrong.

I don’t even know where to start. Perhaps with the performances, which I may be judging unfairly right from the get-go. I watched the English version of the film, which may have been my mistake. Herzog made two versions of the film simultaneously, re-running each take in both German and English, for distribution in separate international markets without the need for subtitles. English was not the native language of his actors, however, and it shows as their line readings come across as incredibly stilted. It’s difficult to describe, a bizarre, disorienting combination of melodramatic intonation and phonetic pronunciation devoid of meaningful intent. I should note here that I’m talking mainly about Bruno Ganz as Jonathan Harker and Isabelle Adjani as Lucy Harker here as the most grievous offenders. Maybe in the German-language version they give much more nuanced, naturalistic performances. Kinski, unsurprisingly, doesn’t have as much trouble staying in character while delivering dialogue in English. And Roland Topor takes the crazy up to 11 as Renfield, which I appreciated, and any struggles he had in translation actually serve his character well.

Apparently Nosferatu the Vampyre had an extremely limited budget and a rather small crew (which in itself is apparently something very typical of German movies produced in the 70’s) and it shows in the finished product. It is transparently clear that no sets were constructed for the film, and every scene, interior and exterior, was shot in a pre-existing location, mainly in the Netherlands and Czechoslovakia. You would think this would give the film a greater sense of verisimilitude, but in fact I experienced the exact opposite phenomenon. Everything looked fake and staged. Actors dressed in period costume reciting dialogue inside structures which happen not to have been updated much in hundreds of years reminded me mostly of historical reenactments at tourist attractions (though the fact that I went to college in Williamsburg, VA means I make that leap on a pretty regular basis, honestly). One example stood out to me: in the scene in which Dracula spends the night feasting on Lucy’s blood in her bedroom, the shot is composed so that a nightstand is foregrounded. And the nightstand looks like it was probably made in the 1960’s or 70’s, with perfect factory-built right angles and glossy finish. The bedroom could pass for a 19th century domestic setting, and surely they had brown wooden nightstands in the 19th century, but it’s also obviously a late 20th century piece of furniture that sticks out like a sore thumb. There were probably numerous other examples of this which I didn’t register consciously but which contributed to the overall feeling of shoddy (or non-existent) production design. I’m so accustomed to Hollywood trickery and attention to detail that I tend to perceive a movie shot on a backlot recreation of Victorian Europe as more real-looking or right-looking than actual Europe.

Another side-effect is that the camerawork overall is fairly dull. In part this is because Herzog is recreating shots from Murnau’s work, and thus despite advances in technology he is limiting himself to what was possible in 1922. And also this is because there are only so many workable angles within an existing, functional row house in Delft as opposed to a studio soundstage. Again, the final effect is imposing a kind of distance between the audience and the movie, denying them the ability to be swept up into the story.

So, real-world location shooting which ends up looking counterintuitively phony, and German-speaking actors doing dialogue in English which sounds overly forced. And that’s not even getting into other questionable decisions, like Herzog restoring the characters’ original names (Nosferatu was a copyright-violating adaptation of Dracula, which had passed into the public domain by the time Nosferatu the Vampyre came about) but somehow assigning the names to the wrong roles? Or the scene where Jonathan is walking through the night to reach the castle and a carriage stops to pick him up, and the lighting effects are created by putting the camera on one side of a large rocky mass and a huge electric klieg setup on the far side of the rocks, which is so jarring it shatters any and all suspension of disbelief?

Which is not to say that the movie has no beauty to it. The most iconic element of Murnau’s Nosferatu is, of course, the look of Count Orlok himself, and Nosferatu the Vampyre manages to both copy and update that vision of the cursed creature (aided, of course, by Kinski bringing it to life). The make-up effects are fantastic. And some of the shots are gorgeous; I wish I could have found a screencap image online, but there is a moment after Dracula arrives in Wismar when he roams the streets late at night and peers through the window of the Harker house. The symbolism, with the camera on the outside looking in over Dracula’s shoulder, is entirely on-the-nose, and Herzog emphasizes it by using natural lighting tones for the interior, and contrasting those with a wash of blue light over Dracula’s features.

Kinski’s performance makes Dracula an otherworldly creature, which I’d argue is the correct approach for the character. (I don’t hate on Francis Ford Coppola’s 1992 Dracula film, I think it’s fun in an over-the-top way, and Gary Oldman’s cool, sexy Vlad Dracul is dynamite for what it is, but you have to pretty much chuck all sense of what Dracula should be out the window to get into it.) I think the ideal embodiment of Dracula would make him mostly terrifying and slightly sympathetic, a tricky off-balance combination of unrelatable and relatable. Unfortunately I don’t think Kinski, or the script he’s working with, come anywhere close to that. In Nosferatu the Vampyre, Dracula is neither scary nor sympathetic, he’s just pathetic. Freakish and doomed, first condemned to parasitic loneliness and ultimately consigned to an ignoble, almost unrecognized death. And that death is further complicated by yet another Herzog addition which deviates from both Stoker’s novel and Murnau’s dramatization: in Nosferatu the Vampyre, the death of Dracula is followed immediately by the rise of Jonathan Harker, who assumes the mantle of vampire and sets out with “much to do.” The implication is that curses never end and evil can never be destroyed, cycles never broken.

All right, seriously, at this point Herzog is just screwing with us, right? I cannot quite bring myself to believe that an auteur like Herzog makes mistakes. Most of what his movie ends up saying has to be something Herzog was deliberately trying to say. But I have no idea what that could be. I can’t really get much traction with a theory that he’s not saying anything personal, and is only riffing on his respect for Murnau’s original. Because if that were the case, why make such significant changes, especially to the ending? Or for that matter, the beginning? The film opens with a shots of actual, mummified corpses set to atmospheric music, and it’s interesting and evocative but almost completely disconnected from the rest of the film. I want to believe that by showing real death (technically cholera victims in a museum) Herzog is making a statement about reckoning with mortality, and how superstitious folk tales about monsters that blur the lines between life and death are really insignificant compared to the actual, inevitable death awaiting us all. But then the rest of the movie just does nothing with that idea. Kinski’s Dracula may be pathetic but he’s still the most fully realized and most real element in the entire film, and everything around him seems insubstantial by comparison. Is death the real monster, or is a fictitious vampire somehow a higher truth?

I don’t know, I can’t parse it out. My personal theory about cover tunes is that they should all abide by three rules: the original recording should have some merit, the artist recording the cover should have some appeal, and the cover should bring something new to the table to improve upon the original. Murnau’s Nosferatu clearly has great merit, and Herzog is an appealing artist. But I remain unconvinced that anything Herzog brings to his updating in Nosferatu the Vampyre qualifies as an improvement. He certainly brings new elements into it, but rather than clarifying or elevating, they never fully cohere and ultimately drag the project down. It’s disappointing to find that what had so much promise on paper is only an interesting failure at best.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Stranger things

We're just about halfway through the NFL season now; from my perspective as a Giants fan it's indisputably the midpoint, with 8 games down and 8 to go, and this coming Sunday as the bye week. The G-Men opened their campaign a devastating 0-and-6, but they somehow managed to win their last two games! Yes, one of those wins was against the even-more-hapless Vikings, and the other was over the faltering Eagles, but they still count, and the latter one counts even more as a division win. This in turn, of course, leads to consideration of just how unimpressive the NFC East is from top to bottom at this point in the season, but whatever the merits of that argument it happens to work out in the Giants' favor. The Giants may only have two wins, but so do the Redskins, while the Eagles have a mere three; the Cowboys are somehow sitting atop the division with a mediocre 4-and-4 record.

So it's not over! First place is theoretically within striking distance! I thought the rest of the season was going to be a pointless exercise in futility, but apparently there are a certain number of meaningful games left to play, after the Giants take a week to rest and recover and strategize. Exactly how many games will be meaningful will depend on whether the Giants continue to eke out wins or hit the skids again, plus whether or not the other NFC East teams get their own houses in order. Still, it's not impossible that New York could contend down to the wire. This would entail heroic levels of fortitude, almost unbelievable amounts, but still!


Yes, Marvel Comics had an NFL-themed superhero for a hot minute there. Oh, 90's.

Concurrent with the realization that I still have an active rooting interest in the remaining Sundays between now and New Years, it dawns on me that forsaking the Giants' season was actually something of a mental/emotional relief for me, one less reason for my heart to arbitrarily soar or sink on a weekly basis. It was a sucky realization to come to, but I did and I got over it. Now, I'm re-investing myself, almost in spite of myself, because old habits die hard. Strange business, this loving things that will never love you back.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Ask again later

The problem with transitions, of course, is that everything is so unsettled. I'm making incremental progress (measured in baby steps) in terms of trying to line up some new source of income and benefits for myself, but nothing is even close to being settled as of yet. And life keeps on keeping on, obnoxiously refusing to pause and wait for me to figure out what I'm doing before demanding that I make decisions which would require at least a good guess of what the future is going to hold.

Not to be too crass, but clearly I'm mostly talking about money here. I might have a good opportunity opening up which would have many pros and few cons, but one of those cons could potentially be a slightly lower annual salary at the outset. And even if that weren't the case, if I were interested in a new job which coincidentally paid the same amount as my current job down to the penny, there would still be numerous other factors to consider. The commute would be different, which means spending more on gas every month and oil changes every year instead of on my (very awesomely subsidized) VRE tickets. Maybe the corporate culture would be more oriented around frequently going out to lunch with colleagues. On the other hand, maybe the health insurance premiums coming out of each paycheck would be lower and I'd be taking home more. But then again maybe the hours wouldn't be as flexible and I'd be incurring more daycare costs since I'd be getting home later. &c., &c., &c.

It's laughably premature to be fretting about things like this, in the first place because I haven't even had a formal interview yet, let along any kind of job offer. And in the second place, because I don't have an offer I don't even know the starting point for calculating whether it would be a challenge or a cakewalk to accept said offer and maintain the family lifestyle. But it's getting close to the end of the year, which is traditionally a time for going over our financial picture and our household budget trends and figuring out what adjustments, if any, to make next year. Except I can't do that right now, because I literally do not know where I'm going to be working on January 1st. Maybe right here, maybe someplace new. Maybe I'll be making more, maybe I'll be making less. And yes, sure, to a certain extent that's true of everyone everywhere all the time, because there are no guarantees in this world and things can and do change in an instant. I'm just feeling it in a pronounced way at the moment.

(To say nothing of the whole "where are we going to be living in five years?" conundrum, which will no doubt be hanging over my head for ... the next five years, I guess.)

My wife and I did have a conversation, or at least the prelude to a conversation, about the family budget this past Saturday. During the course of that conversation the phrase "we need to be grown-ups about it" came into play, not in any kind of accusatory fashion, just a mutual acknowledgement that we might be lucky enough to be living at certain level of comfort without counting every nickel, but it's still the right thing to do to at least try to be mindful and responsible and so forth. This was followed by Sunday (as Saturdays are wont to be), a day during which at least 80% of what both my wife and I ate, all day, was pie.

Sure, it was because we went to a charity event showcasing thirty-nine different homemade pie recipes and we both took our judging responsibilities very seriously and thus were obligated to sample as many of the pies as possible in order to rank them accordingly. But none of that changes the "subsisted on pie all day" bottom line. At the very least I can report that no fewer than three of those pies did in fact have vegetable ingredients in them, so in that sense I suppose we evinced a certain amount of grown-up responsibility. So, good for us.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Saturday Grab Bag Post-Scripts

In the hustle and bustle of the last couple weeks I haven't had time to weigh in on Toy Story of Terror!

The verdict? Pretty good! It was a given that we would let the little guy stay up late (a whole half an hour) to watch the special, since it's a new instance of his favorite thing ever in the entire world, but fortunately Pixar has a pretty high commitment to quality, even in holiday tv specials. I thought they took an interesting tack in this one, focusing mainly on Jessie, who is the toy with a whole set of fears and anxieties built into her backstory (abandonment issues, claustrophobia) which could be exploited in a haunted house (or motel in this case) story. And ultimately, Jessie overcame her fears and got to be the hero, which is heartening. Plus Carl Weathers as Combat Carl was marvelous, and some of the other new toys amused me (Pocketman of The Fastener Four? TRANSITRON, the composite robot made of transforming mass transit vehicles? COME ON.)

The one thing I was a little iffy on was the running thread of Mr. Pricklepants basically channeling the sensibilities of the Scream franchise, offering meta-commentary of the "well if this were a horror movie, this is what would happen next" variety. Cute, but kind of done to death by now. On the one hand, it almost makes sense for there to be in-story explanations of horror conventions, because the target audience of little kids won't have that frame of reference, but on the other hand, do they really need to process those parallels and echoes in order to follow the plot? (No.)

Still, it was a very me thing to include. Have I mentioned that Mr. Pricklepants is my wife's favorite character? If he obsesses over how meta things are, that's not exactly going to change my wife's affection for him, I reckon.

+++

No updates on the job-change front, although with every day I'm hankering for change a little bit more. Another factor in the equation cropped up recently: the dreaded Holiday Parties. Plural. Apparently my department is responsible for planning this year's party for the whole agency. So I kinda need to get clear of that mess before it gets into full swing.

+++

Last month, I read a novel called The Art of fielding, which was about college kids and encompassed everything from baseball to Herman Melville. I enjoyed it immensely, though all the references to professional baseball tended to revolve around the St. Louis Cardinals, which is a team I'm resolutely indifferent about.

Well, usually I am. But now St. Louis is the NL opponent of the Boston Red Sox in the World Series, and so of course I am rooting for the Cards big time. Once again life imitates art in funny, funny ways.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Mumming and guising, a personal retrospective

A few years ago, within the pages of this very blog, I talked about some of my Costumes of Halloween Past. Of course that was not a complete inventory, but rather a few random samples from two different ends of the dress-up spectrum: the years when I was too young to really make decisions for myself, and the years when I was (admittedly) too old for trick-or-treating but still found a reason to half-ass something together on the morning of the 31st anyway.

So, in the interest of cataloging my own life as thoroughly and obsessively as possible (which, it must be noted, is still not 100% thorough because my childhood memories remain spotty as ever) I thought on this Friday before All Hallows' I'd run down a few more of my Halloween Costume memories.

My first ever Halloween costume was a clown outfit, homemade by my mom. I was two, which of course means I don't remember this at all, but I've seen some family photos, and it was pretty cute (if I do say so myself).

In the post I linked to above, I noted some of the weird (and borderline inappropriate) Ben Cooper costumes I trick-or-treated in as an elementary schooler, but the very first plastic mask and vinyl jumpsuit costume I ever donned was C-3PO, when I was three or four years old. Just so we're clear that I was 100% onboard with the whole Star Wars fandom thing pretty much from the very moment the original film was first released.

By the time I was in fourth grade or so, I was obsessed with special effects and monster makeup, and thus there was a good run of Halloweens where I dressed up as classic archetypes like werewolves, vampires and devils. There was no palette of greasepaint too messy, no prosthetic too cumbersome for me. (This will come up again.) I remember checking books out of the kids' section of the public library which explained how to achieve various ghastly effects; I would actually check the books out again and again year-round as I waited for Halloween to roll around again, or more specifically for the drug stores to start stocking costume components a few weeks out (since this was back in the 80's before Party City and/or pop-up Halloween stores). My mom would take me shopping and buy the make-up kits and the plastic accessories, but I was always intent on putting the look together myself, applying the horns or pointed ears or snout or fangs or whatnot and blending the facepaint. Looking back the most charitable way to describe my efforts would probably be "enthusiastically amateurish" but it never occurred to me to ask for any grown-up help. Halloween was just my thing.

Around that same time I started keeping the costume pieces and leftover makeup in a big monster dress-up stockpile, just in case anyone ever agreed to put on a haunted house in the summer or use a video camcorder to make a horror movie in the winter. I desperately wanted this to happen, and it almost never did. The exception was one summer at the beach when me and and a couple of other friends-of-the-family kids did put together a haunted house (read: bedroom) and persuaded our relatives to submit themselves to the terrifying guided tour. But of course that was spontaneous and on vacation, so I had none of my monster makeup with me, and ended up as a no-budget zombie with a baby powdered white face and construction paper scars.

The last time I went all-out as a kid for Halloween, as I recall, was late in middle school when I got it into my head that I could make my own Green Lantern costume. Just to refresh everyone's memory, this is what the Green Lantern uniform looked like circa late 1980-something:

So, how hard could that be? A pair of black sweatpants and a black sweatshirt, plus an oversized green t-shirt which could have its sides cut out and hem safety-pinned together at the crotch. A white felt circle glued on the chest with a green felt lantern symbol glued on top of that, a green domino mask, white gloves, and a big green ring, probably also made of felt. Simple!

(A couple of years later they relaunched the Green Lantern comic book series and suddenly authentic plastic replica power rings were everywhere, and I was bitter about the timing. Ah, well.)

Once again, I wasn't asking my parents to do anything more than purchase the raw materials and let me at the project myself, which they did. And once again, I was proud of the results at the time, which I suppose is all that really mattered. Incidentally, that same Halloween my Little Bro decided he also wanted to dress up as a superhero, in his case as Captain America, which he managed by gluing felt stars and stripes to a man blue hoodie sweatshirt, and then gluing wings to and cutting eyeholes in the hood, which he pulled down to his nose to approximate Cap's cowl. We made quite the slapdash pair that year.

And then I was a teenager and my priorities changed and Halloween became more and more of an afterthought. I remember a couple of low-effort costumes from high school and none at all from college, but then oddly enough I started getting back into Halloween in a big way after college, the stand-out example of which was when I was 23, living in a rental townhouse with some buddies, and a quartet of us decided to do Halloween as Smurfs.

In a lot of ways this was the culmination of all the Halloweens of my childhood (barring the Ben Cooper years). A Smurf's default uniform can be easily recreated with white sweatpants, white socks and a white stocking cap. The blue skin, on the other hand, would have to be a major makeup job. My friends and I even got sewing help in modifying the hats into recognizably Smurfy shape (not from anyone's mom, from my buddy's girlfriend, but still).

The group costume effort was not for trick or treating purposes, but rather because we were hosting a Halloween costume party at our townhouse. So there was no need to dress warmly or incorporate sensible footwear. In fact, my buddies and I waited for most of the guests to arrive, busying ourselves with last minute party prep, and then we all ran upstairs, threw on the white pants and socks and hats, slathered our upper bodies and faces in bright blue body paint (assisting each other with the unreachable spots on our backs) and then made a grand entrance to the party as a unified foursome of Smurfs. Or, technically, as Degenerate Smurfs. Rather than fight over who got to be Hefty or who had to be Brainy, we came up with our own lesser-known members of the clan: Smokey Smurf (one cigarette behind his ear, the pack in the waistband of his pants), Horny Smurf (permanently priapic thanks to a sex toy shoved down the front of his pants), Drunky Smurf (with gin-blossoming red nose and a paperbag-wrapped bottle in hand, that was me, thank you very much) and Gothy Smurf (who actually wore black rather than white, including black eyeliner and lipstick and some bondage gear accessories). In addition to evening out the blue tones between each other's shoulders, we had also drawn eyeliner tattoos on each other's arms. We were a big hit, and I think I knew at that point I would probably never top it in terms of overall concept and nailing the visual.

Which doesn't mean I didn't continue going to costume parties as an adult. Nowadays Halloween is all about taking my own kids trick-or-treating (they are all going as Toy Story characters this year, which you probably would have guessed if I'd given you the opportunity) but for a few years there I ran through everything from storebought costumes (samurai warrior!) to topical references (before we were married, and before they were divorced, my wife and I kitted ourselves out as Britney Spears and Kevin Federline) to childhood callbacks that were really only amusing to me (I once again spirit-gummed horns to my forehead to dress up as a devil, but skipped the facepaint, the cape and the pitchfork and went for more of a lounge-lizard Lucifer in a red thriftstore sportjacket). Someday, our kids will want to go trick-or-treating in their own neighborhood with their own friends, and instead of driving several towns away we'll run Halloween out of our home, and I can easily see myself being one of those suburban dads who dresses up like the Grim Reaper to answer the door and hand out candy. Or, let's be honest, the one who dresses up like a scarecrow and sits on the porch, pretending to be a prop, until the kids are right on the doormat and I can jump up and scare the bejeezus out of them. Can't wait!

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Maladies upon maladies

I would like to start by acknowledging that the little guy is fit as a fiddle. And not only is his health good, but his behavior lately has been exemplary. Parenting him has been reasonably easy as he has done an admirable job working hard at school and following most of the family rules at home, including going along with the routine at bedtime and spending the entire night in his own bed, sound asleep.

Let me also add that no one in the house is currently dying, at least not in any dramatic untimely fashion. It’s not as if we’ve been struck by the Black Plague.

Having said all that, oh my stars are we a collective mess right now. Call it a Gray Plague. I wrote last week about the little girl’s bodily struggles to expel a virus from her system by turning her own lungs inside out; she’s mostly over that but still not 100% physically and also still rather brittle emotionally. Meanwhile she has passed the virus along to her baby brother, who is far too young to sleep through a coughing fit, so every spasm wakes him up in a panic. My wife took him to the pediatrician today and asked if we should try giving him nebulizer treatments at night, and the doctor agreed that was a good plan. So that makes us three-for-three on our children making use of that piece of respiratory equipment at some point in their infancy. Now we will see if the baby ends up needing tubes for his ears just like both his older siblings. We’re hoping not, even though the tubes were godsends for the little guy and little girl and we don’t regret those operations at all. I guess we’re hoping it simply won’t be necessary, which probably goes without saying, though if it is we won’t hesitate to go for the myringotomy hat trick.

At any rate, my wife and I are both a bit sleep deprived, and thus feeling under the weather as a matter of course. The weather is getting colder and we each find ourselves getting the chills intermittently, which never fails to make us panic about influenza. (We haven’t gotten our shots yet this season, though that’s climbing higher and higher on the priority list.) And above and beyond all that, my wife now has mastitis, a diagnosis (as of yesterday) which came complete with a note from the doctor forbidding her to return to work before Saturday. And I have a scorching case of poison ivy which I picked up in the course of some (overly) ambitious yardwork last weekend. It covers most of my left arm, the area of my left ribs that comes in contact with that arm when I sleep, and the back of my right hand. I’ve been toughing it out with calamine lotion and ibuprofen, waiting for the rash and blisters to subside, but they stubbornly have not. The new plan is to try a specifically formulated scrub to get the urushiol out of my skin and hopefully speed up nature’s course.

So needless to say it’s been a bit of a rough week and about all I have the mental energy for today is the survey of woes I’ve just completed. This too shall pass, and all will be made right soon enough. The hard part is getting from here to there.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Redemption swansong (Doctor Sleep)

Really, what would SPOOKTOBERFEST be without an appearance by Stephen King? Lucky for me a new SK novel was released in September, and it is not one of the man’s forays into literary fiction with tinges of genre. Doctor Sleep is pretty much straight horror (I’ll elaborate on the “pretty much” part presently) and more to the point, it’s a direct sequel to The Shining, one of the all-time horror classics. Or should that be two of the all-time horror classics? Because there’s Stephen King’s The Shining, a 1977 novel, and Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, a 1980 movie. Technically the latter is a film adaptation of the former, but they really are two entirely distinct stories. (Yes, I've been over most of this before.)

I got heavily into Stephen King fandom when I was in high school, and when I took a public speaking class my junior year and had to give a biographical presentation, I chose the horrormeister as my subject. So doing research on the man behind the books became part of my homework, and I threw myself into it. Fortunately this was not hard, since Stephen King is a popular and not particularly press-shy subject, and resources concerning his life and life’s work are thick on the ground (particularly in the early 90’s, when said resources constituted their own thriving bookstore industry). Point being, not only did I read The Shining before I saw the movie, I read plenty of interviews and analyses illuminating the fact that King never really cared for the most renowned (at the time) film based on one of his works. He didn’t like the casting of Nicholson as Jack Torrance because the original story was about a good but flawed man driven insane by an otherworldly evil, and Nicholson radiates “crazy and probably evil!” from the first frame he appears in. King also felt like Kubrick didn’t really get the novel, and that the two men perceived the world around them in fundamentally different ways, and their divergent philosophies inform their respective works in very telling ways. So, with my loyalties firmly in King’s camp, I came to Kubrick’s Shining with great skepticism, and only slowly came around on its merits with time.

Stephen King can basically write anything he wants at this point (and has gone so far as to prove that once or twice). But picking up the thread on a story like The Shining is tricky. It’s 36 years old, for one thing. And it’s insanely beloved by fans. And, whether King likes it or not (he doesn’t), there’s the legacy of Kubrick’s version, which has also managed to stand the test of time.

The good news is that Doctor Sleep does not feel like a desperately cashgrabbing and unnecessary extension. It’s an organic continuation of the story of Danny (Dan, as a grown-up) Torrance, who was the protagonist-by-default of The Shining (he is the one with the psychic power referenced in the title, after all). Fair enough to wonder how little Danny turned out after the harrowing ordeal at the Overlook Hotel, and the answer is a mixed bag: on the one hand, he’s a decent human being who works in hospices because his telepathy and spiritual sensitivity give him a gift for easing end-of-life transitions; on the other hand, just like his father, he’s an alcoholic with rage issues. There are references a-plenty to the events from The Shining, but there are new elements as well: a young girl named Abra who is astronomically more powerful than Dan ever was, whom Dan befriends and ultimately must protect, and a subculture of evil creatures in human guise known as the True Knot. The True Knot are functionally immortal, so long as they periodically consume the psychic energies of children with the shining. So they roam the highways in RVs, locating gifted kids, then kidnapping, torturing and murdering them to release their sustenance.

So that’s the major horror element of Doctor Sleep, and the reason why I qualified it at the outset is that it’s a good concept that really functions only as a secondary element. I was reminded (and this will shock you, I’m sure) of the Dark Tower novels, which had their own scary and disturbing motifs (demons and slow mutants and witches, oh my) but were primarily adventure stories, good versus evil and the battles they must wage. Doctor Sleep is really about Dan and Abra (and some other allies) versus the True Knot, which makes for an entertaining yarn but not a particularly frightening one. Because the True Knot never, at any point, has the upper hand. The True Knot start off arrogant and callous, they underestimate Abra, and they remain ignorant of Dan. Dan comes up with a plan to defeat the True Knot, and it more or less goes off without a hitch. I was making mental bets with myself as to who would die before the end, because what’s a horror novel without one of the protagonists dying? Would it be Abra, the young life cut tragically short (though she was probably too good and too powerful for this world anyway)? Would it be Dan’s septuagenarian friend Billy (whose life Dan already saved once and who was thus living on borrowed time)? Could it possibly be Dan himself, unable to escape the shadow of death that had dominated his world since he was five? Spoilers! None of those. The good guys unambiguously win, with nary a skeletal not-dead-yet hand thrusting out of a shallow grave as the conquering heroes walk away to speak of.

I don’t have any objections to a comicbook-y tale of virtuous psychic humans taking on vile psychic monsters and coming out on top; for 500 or so pages (a brisk romp for Stephen King!) I was entertained and, honestly, by the end I was relieved. (Sometimes King’s books are not exactly what I would call fun.) But I did find myself wondering throughout Doctor Sleep why King bothered. Yeah, as I led with, he can write whatever he wants, but why was this what he wanted?

I think the answer probably comes near the end of the book (More Spoilers!) as a combination of fate and circumstance dictates that Dan’s showdown with Rose, the leader of the True Knot, takes place on the unhallowed grounds where the Overlook Hotel once stood. And at the moment when Rose seems to have the upper hand, and is on the verge of killing Dan, a ghost intervenes on Dan’s behalf. The Overlook may have burned to the ground at the end of The Shining, but the supernatural forces which had been stored in it like charges in a hellish battery hung around. The helpful ghost turns out, of course, to be Jack Torrance, whom Dan recognizes fleetingly before the spirit vanishes.

Just to be clear, let’s connect the dots here: in the novel The Shining, Jack succumbs to the malignant forces which have supersaturated the Overlook, and tries to murder his wife and child, but they ultimately escape, in no small part because the Overlook has a defective boiler which needs to have its pressure manually regulated. Jack forgets about the boiler while he’s stalking his family, but at the last moment the good man in him regains enough control to remember his caretaker responsibilities (in both senses) and he runs to the basement to release the pressure valve. He gets there too late, dies when the boiler explodes, and the Overlook is destroyed, but Danny and Wendy are able to escape in the precious moments when Jack leaves off the hunt. In a sense, the Overlook was trying to kill the whole family, but Jack sacrificed himself to ensure that it only got one out of three. Then the movie The Shining came out, and Jack was re-imagined as incapable of that kind of self-sacrifice. Danny and Wendy get away because Danny is able to trick his father and manipulate his murderous single-mindedness. And Jack freezes to death in the hedge maze, cold and miserable, unloved and unloving. This becomes the prevalent popular conception of Jack Torrance. Which must have driven King crazy, not only because it undermines his intent but because, obviously, there are certain autobiographical elements in the original novel. JT and SK are both writers, both alcoholics, and both have sons. Clearly King, like every other reproducing human being ever, feels like he’s had his moments where he’s let Joe down as a father. But he’d also like to believe that when the chips were down he would put his son’s life above all else.

So after decades of stewing about this, King writes another novel in which Dan thinks often of his father, and their complicated relationship, short yet fraught, and ultimately realizes that he loves his father. Dan also goes through AA, just as King has (though he hadn’t back in ‘77). And Jack Torrance gets another chance to save his son’s life, while King gets to have the final word about what happened in Colorado and what it all meant. There are loftier reasons to pen a novel, but there are worse reasons as well, I suppose.

In an afterword to Doctor Sleep, King outright acknowledges that Kubrick’s Shining is a thing that exists, and that anyone who had never read the source novel, but saw that movie, and was looking to Doctor Sleep as a sequel to that story would be very confused and most likely disappointed. Fair enough. King also takes one more shot at Kubrick, saying that he’s aware that people often cite the film of The Shining as one of the scariest movies they’ve ever seen, which is something King cannot wrap his head around.

That insight alone would be worth the price of the hardcover edition to me. (OK, I bought it at Costco, but still.) It comes down to those fundamental philosophical differences again. To King’s mind, if I’m understanding him correctly, the movie The Shining may be a visual tour-de-force of singular accomplishment, but it’s not scary. Scariness is distinct and separate from other emotional states. Kubrick’s Shining is alienating and disturbing, no question. It is a polished strand of the stuff of nightmares captured by the lens. But it’s also heartless. King maintains that the way to scare a person is to give them something to care about and then threaten to take it away (and possibly actually follow through on the threat). King finds his own version of The Shining scary, if he does say so himself, because Jack is relatable and sympathetic and readers get attached to him before he is lost to the darkness in the Overlook. Kubrick skips all that and goes straight for the uncanny. It has a lot to do with the differences between novels and films as narrative vehicles, certainly. But it also has a lot to do with approach. And as for me, I respect Kubrick’s approach, but I’m still a bigger fan of King’s.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Music to my ears

While my mom was staying with us for the Tuesday-to-Tuesday week encompassing the Columbus Day weekend, she had plenty of opportunity to witness our various daily routines, e.g. the little girl’s naptime rituals. On the Monday holiday, I had taken the day off from work and so I got my daughter settled down for her midday siesta, turned on her fan and radio, went downstairs and turned on the baby monitor in the kitchen and started to make myself some lunch. My mom was also in the kitchen and she asked me what radio station it was coming through the very-lo-fi speaker; of course the call letters and whatnot would be meaningless to her, and what she really wanted to do was simply comment that she liked the hour’s worth of music that had been playing every naptime and bedtime.

Longtime readers may recall that the radio station in question is the local dinosaur rock Clear Channel affiliate, which I generally regard with a mixture of bemused gratitude and dispirited resignation. I’m thankful that there is a commercial FM station in this market which has a playlist which is mostly stuff I like and not unbearably repetitive and makes excellent mindless background noise, but at the same time it’s still a little bit repetitive, both in its own self-reflexive way and in the sense that it’s all the music I grew up listening to in my parents’ house, and it’s not an avenue for discovery of either forgotten classics or (obviously) anything new and up and coming.

Still, it was slightly surprising for me to hear my mother expressing any kind of interest in the music format, because my mother is not known for having very strong opinions about much of anything. I think of dinosaur rock as the music I heard “in my parents’ house” but I might as well say “at my father’s knee” because he’s the one I tend to associate with tuning the dial on the stereo or bringing home new 45s (well into the late 80’s). Nevertheless, I didn’t out and out challenge my mom or anything, and if she stakes a claim on something I’ll simply take her at her word, which is what I did. My mother then further elaborated that, as far as she knew, there weren’t any similar radio stations out where she lives (near Albuquerque). Country/western, latino, top 40 and talk, sure, but no dinosaur (I’m sure she’d prefer “classic” or somesuch) rock.

Arguably that marked my mother rendering not one but two heartfelt aesthetic judgments in the same conversation: pro-rock and anti-country, which would have been remarkable in and of itself. It also might have been utterly infuriating to me, as yet another exhibit in the ever-growing pile of evidence that my mom Really Isn’t Happy in New Mexico. I can’t recall how much detail I’ve gone into around here, but the shortest version I can possibly give goes something like this: around the time my Very Little Bro was finishing high school (the mid-aughties), my step-father became obsessed with the idea of flipping houses in the booming southwest U.S. housing market. So when Very Little Bro graduated, my mom retired from her job at the bank, collected her pension as a lump sum, and invested it in real estate. She and my step-father bought cheap, lived in a house as they fixed it up, then sold it for profit and started the cycle again (as you do). Over the next few years, a couple of things happened: my mom became a grandmother, and the housing bubble burst. So the original plan connecting them to New Mexico was no longer operative, and there was that much stronger pull back to the east coast in the form of adorable babies. Mom and step-dad did actually come back home a couple years ago, but the transitional plan they had for finding jobs and a place of their own to live was derailed by various natural and family disasters. And they wound up back out in Albuquerque again, for … reasons? The whole situation put a strain on my relationship with my mother, which meant I never talked to her enough to get a sense of why they would head out west for a second go, which meant I found the whole arrangement frustrating and so on and so on.

All the time (both times) that my mom and step-dad have been out west, my mom has compiled a list of things that bring her down about hanging her hat there, from the profound (she misses her family, her brothers and her kids, all of whom live on the east coast; she never really made any new friends out there) to the trivial (the bread isn’t as good!), towards which I’ve been sympathetic when she’s been in the process of correcting course and coming east, and less so when she’s been (dis)content to stay put. The east coast and the southwest really are very different cultures, and although they both count as genuine flavors of America, and I’m not saying one is inherently, objectively better than the other, I know which one I prefer and I’ve gotten the message loud and clear which one my mom prefers. Not a big fan of slide guitar and fiddle? Hey, I hear ya. There are places where the airwaves are less saturated with those vibes. Feel free to relocate accordingly.

However, my mom’s general pattern is to open up and come out of her shell little by little over the course of a visit, so clearly this conversation about radio station diversity or lack thereof came near the end of the weeklong visit. And by that time, it was a day or so past the point at which she casually mentioned that her husband was going to work his job in Albuquerque for another year or two until he hits the minimum age to collect Social Security, during which they’ll save as much cushion as they can, and then they’ll pack up and move back east again (permanently this time, one hopes!) to be closer to the family. My Little Bro lives in upstate New York and my Very Little Bro lives on the Massachusetts/New Hampshire border, so with my brood in Virginia it seems likely that my mom and step-dad will wind up somewhere central to all of us, like rural Pennsylvania. This is welcome, happy news. A lot could go wrong (or just go weirdly, unexpectedly different) in these two-ish years that need to elapse before the plan goes into motion, but I’m optimistic. At the very least I’m willing to listen understandingly to my mom’s venting about New Mexico knowing that she’s willing to do something about it, eventually.

Monday, October 21, 2013

The devil I know

So I am caught on the horns of a dilemma. On the one hand, I have this growing sense that my time at my present place of employment is rapidly drawing to a close. I have some irons in the fire which may or may not amount to anything, but even if those particular leads go cold, I will probably keep at it in different directions until I can make a break, a change, a clean start, and everything else I’m yearning for professionally at the moment. I’ve been getting paychecks from the same company for over six years now, and have been engaged on this specific contract for more than four; I still remember those crazy dot-com boom days when it was more or less assumed that everyone in my generational cohort would bounce from job to job at least every five years (and at most, as often as headhunters came a’calling with ludicrous salary offers for jumping ship). It really is a question of when I’ll move on, not if, and the answer is basically “just as soon as I can”.

On the other hand, I have no earthly idea how soon that will be, and therefore it is in my best interest to continue to operate under the assumption that I am going to be at my present place of employment for a good long while. It is tempting, in a very vicious cycle kind of way, to conduct myself like I have a bad case of senioritis and graduation is about a month away, but not only do I recognize that as inherently unprofessional, but it could very well blow up in my face, bite me in the ass, or cause any number of other metaphorical bodily injuries to me.

So I’m wrapping up the last straggling loose ends of my big annoying project, and while I’d like that to be the capstone I go out on, I also find myself getting drawn into newer initiatives which could potentially keep me busy for a very long time. Ordinarily I would consider this a good thing, a reason to have a little faith in my job security, an opportunity to make myself a little more indispensable. But doing it (or more to the point, doing it right) requires a certain amount of big-picture thinking and long-term planning, and I’m not entirely sure I’m up to the task.

All of this was neatly encapsulated for me last week, as I had a scheduled one-on-one meeting with my government boss’s boss. I may have mentioned this a while back, but she is new to the organization as of about six months ago, and based on the impressions I’ve gotten at all-hands meetings and whatnot so far, she seems like a perfectly nice person to work for, someone genuinely interested in the success of the organization and willing to do what’s necessary, including changing the way things have always been done, to achieve the mission. Which would be unreservedly great if I wasn’t mentally on my way out the door. But I find it all but impossible to get myself emotionally psyched up for this change at the top.

Not long after the new boss-of-bosses came aboard, she announced her attention to conduct the one-on-ones with everyone in the agency. I took that in stride at the time and assumed, as one of the lowliest contractors, that my appointment would either never manage to get scheduled or be scheduled only to be postponed indefinitely. And I was really fine with that. But to my hat-eating surprise, the one-on-one showed up on my calendar and stuck, with typical inopportune timing. The thing is, even when I feel exhausted by my job, even when I feel a certain accompanying careerist wanderlust, I have a natural tendency towards loyalty which means that even to fully consider looking for, applying for, interviewing for and leaving for a new job, I have to psyche myself … up? down? out? … in the appropriate direction, as the case may be. I need to really, truly convince myself that my current gig does not in truth deserve my loyalty, due to its various shortcomings, frustrations and indignities. So just when I had built up a pretty good head of steam in the form of a mantra of all the things wrong with my job which should motivate me to move onwards and upwards, along comes a meeting with the boss’s boss in which I needed to make nice and talk about the things I like about the job, and the things which are challenges but also for which I can envision solutions (with management’s support).

It was jarring, but I made it through without shooting myself in the foot and without losing my grip on the impetus to get out of here sooner rather than later. Please keep all fingers crossed that I can pull off the shift into the next phase of my career before I have some kind of dissociative break from trying to think in two opposite directions at once.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Trilogy of Terrors

Gather ‘round, beastly boys and ghostly girls, and prepare to have your spine tingled, your blood curdled, and your myocardium thoroughly discombobulated. I bring you many tales of doings both gruesome and foul: Dismemberment! Plague! The barking of hellhounds! Crawling things with fangs and claws!

I bring you tales … of my children. (OMINOUS STROBES OF LIGHTNING AND CRASHES OF THUNDER)

Of course I’d be highly susceptible to finding any excuse to tie in my usual brood updates to SPOOKTOBERFEST, but it really wasn’t much of a stretch at all this time. I’ll start with the loss of limb story, which is not as bad as it sounds (but almost): the other day the little guy was playing with his prize possession, his large talking Buzz Lightyear action figure, and he brought the space ranger in for a particularly heavy-footed landing which snapped one of the legs right off its plastic joint. This was not a pop-out, pop-back-in injury, unfortunately; the armature was sheared through and it would have taken a miracle to superglue it back together in any lasting way that still allowed full motion of the limb. The little guy, as you can imagine, was devastated, and in a heartbreakingly inward-facing way because he had done the damage himself, however accidentally. Through his tears, he was grappling with some heavy existential questions: “I know toys don’t last forever and things break,” he sobbed to me, “but WHY can’t they last forever? Why aren’t things made so that they NEVER break?” (When I figure out a good answer for that one I will get back to him, and all of you.)

The one consolation I was able to offer the little guy was that Christmas is coming and maybe, if he decides it’s what he really wants, a brand new Buzz Lightyear toy could be one of his big presents then. That actually did the trick of calming him down and reinvigorating his sense that life is still worth living. Honestly, “prize possession” barely scratches the surface. The little guy has taken to referring to Buzz as his brother and telling people that he is one of four children (still first in the birth order, although Buzz has leapfrogged ahead of the little girl and the baby) - which was hilariously confusing this past weekend when we attended a family wedding and various great-uncles and -aunts and second cousins tried having conversations with the little guy, who carried the at that point still unbroken Buzz everywhere we went.

At any rate, the little guy’s grasp of time intervals like weeks, months and seasons is still iffy at best, so all he really knows is that Christmas will get here before, say, his next birthday, and he’s hanging in there until then. In the meantime, he’s resolved to make the best of things (as resilient little kids often do). The opening sequence of Toy Story 2, as you may or may not recall, is a mini Buzz versus Zurg epic that ends with Zurg blasting Buzz and atomizing him from the waist up (because it’s just a video game that Rex is incapable of beating). The little guy still plays with one-legged Buzz, and often re-enacts said opening, and switches most-of-Buzz for just-his-leg when the moment comes that Zurg fries the rest of him. I find this hilarious pretty much every time.

Moving on, the aforementioned disease and unholy animal noises all belonged to the little girl, I am afraid, who came down with some kind of nasty virus in the wake of our roadtrip which brought on the barking croup. My wife and I noted that this will probably go down in the record books as possibly the only time one of our children will time a bout of sickness in any way favorably. The little girl did not get sick before the trip, which would have caused us to question going at all, nor when we were all trapped in a car or hotel room together, but held off until we were home. And at that point it was the eve of a holiday, so I was planning on staying home anyway. She never got any symptoms worse than a high fever and the insidious lung-rattle, which of course came on strongest at night when everything settled horizontally in her chest. We shuttled her back and forth from her bed to ours, administered pain and fever reducers, gave her midnight juice boxes, &c. She’s on the mend, it’s just one of those things.

And her baby brother has been contending with a few of those things, as well. Not creeping crud, as our first pediatrician used to colorfully refer to it, but the baby is the crawly creature I alluded to above. His fangs are two front lower teeth which are well-emerged and two front upper teeth with are just peeking through. And his suprisingly strong, grabby little fingers have the sharpest little fingernails I’ve ever been gouged by. But the big news is that he has achieved independent locomotion, however herpetological and belly-scraping, and therefore we are now DOOOOOOOOOOMED. Can’t take your eyes off him for a second or he’ll be halfway across the floor and getting into something he shouldn’t. I don’t recall if I ever said it hereabouts, but having two children is exponentially harder than having one. In the same vein, now, having two elder siblings to the baby just learning to wriggle around the room at will, we have exponentially more choking hazards scattered about than we ever did the last couple times we went through this phase. So that’s fun.

But between the physical pain and trauma of teething (and its snot-engendering side-effects) and the neurological mania of learning to crawl (his brain is on fire) the baby has regressed significantly on the sleeping-through-the-night front. I try to cast my mind back to how we survived this stage with the other two children, but of course the times when I’m least likely to retain and remember things are the times when I’m mentally exhausted. (As always, I concede that my own fatigue is not a patch on my wife’s, since the bulk of the comfort-via-nursing strategy for making it through the night rest solely on her.) I have a vague sense that this was the precedent-setting pattern: avoid sleep-training the little one, let him/her naturally get better and better at sleeping longer and longer, which works for a while, then the little one backslides, so we swing fully into sleep-training mode, telling ourselves that it’s actually more of a sleep-reminding since they were doing so well before some developmental milestone or other upset the cherub cart. Something like that? And that’s probably where we’re headed now.

Again, it’s only (well, mostly) in the spirit of this macabre month that I’m dwelling on the negative here. By and large things with the kids are as fun and fascinating as ever. No need to worry … unless that wailing you hear coming from down the hall in the middle of the night doesn’t belong to anyone among the living … (LIGHTNING THUNDER MUUWAAHAAHAAHAAAAAAAAaaaa)

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Rising from the grave

Man, it feels like I’ve been away from the ol’ blog for a dog’s age. I pre-loaded Saturday and Sunday’s posts since I knew I’d be on the road and away from my usual computer haunts, and then the Monday holiday wound up consumed by catching up on all the housework we’d missed by being out of town all weekend. Yesterday I was back to the Big Gray grind and between mandatory meetings and my usual daily to-do’s (plus, possibly, some efforts at altering the future employment situation slipped into stray opportune moments here and there) there was no time for thoughtful blog-gathering. (Also, for a couple hours yesterday morning the office connection to the outside interwebs was broken, and that alone would have been enough to completely throw me off my game.)

So, contrary timestamps notwithstanding, I haven’t posted anything since Friday and it’s high time to correct that, especially with SPOOKTOBERFEST already half gone and done. I have been gorging myself on horror-tainment all along, of course, including finishing The Devil in the White City. I had wanted to blog about the book on Monday in honor of Columbus Day, because the 1893 World’s Fair for which the titular White City was constructed in Chicago was of course a celebration of Columbus’s voyage to the new world 400 years earlier. The book is excellent (between The Devil in the White City and Thunderstruck, which I read back in 2008, I’m slowly becoming a pretty big fan of Erik Larson) for being as immersive as it is educational as it is disturbing. I don’t know that talking about the events described in the book would constitute spoilers, since it’s all a matter of century-old public record at this point, but I’m still hesitant to go into it too much. I’d rather just recommend the book heartily, and get out of Larson’s way, because the real strength is in his particular telling (or re-telling) of the intertwined stories.

Additionally, while it may be argued that the Moment of the Zombie in the pop culture zeitgeist has already passed its prime, it’s still unholy ground worth returning to with Halloween fast approaching. So I read a comics collection entitled Infestation Volume 1, and I finally watched George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead.

Whilst everyone recovers from the shock of learning that it took me until just last week to see one of the all-time classic modern horror flicks, I’ll explain a bit about what Infestation is. It is frigging insane, is what it is. It’s a comics crossover (meaning a vaguely unified story that runs through multiple titles) published by IDW back in early 2011. IDW is not one of the Big Two comics publishers who handle Captain America and Spider-Man or Batman and Green Lantern. Instead, IDW primarily puts out comics based on licensed properties, with some supplemental original material as well. So if you are looking for comics featuring the characters from CSI or Doctor Who, you might look to their publications.

More importantly, they publish a lot of nostalgic geek-kid properties, like G.I. Joe and Transformers and Star Trek and Ghostbusters comics. I love living in a world where franchise extensions like those exist, although I’m not usually one for following them myself. However, clue me in to the existence of a finite yet large-scale mega-story in which a zombie outbreak (or infestation, if you will) breaches the walls separating various fictional universes, meaning the Joes and the crew of the Enterprise and Doctors Venkman, Spengler and Stantz all have to battle with the ravenous undead (as do the Autobots and Decepticons, due to the zombies utilizing artillica - the combination of magic and technology - to infect robots as well) and I will probably make some time to sample such a saga for myself, eventually.


Click to monster-size.

Honestly, though, what really pushed me over the edge was finding out that there was a sequel, Infestation 2 (appropriately enough) that not only raised the stakes by bringing in the malevolent cosmic intelligence responsible for creating the zombie plague but also roped in additional licensed properties I love such as Dungeons & Dragons and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (comeonpeopleI’mnotmadeofstone) and of course, completist geek that I am, I figured I’d better start at the beginning to appreciate the full sweep and scope of the whole thing. Maybe I will get around to Infestation 2 next SPOOKTOBERFEST. For now, though, I’m still at the beginning, and it’s pretty much all high-concept premise, which is certainly enough to engage me but not enough for me to really render judgment on.

Night of the Living Dead, on the other hand, is a touchstone unto itself. Like many, many other things I’ve blogged about before (too many to link back to) there’s a certain sense of already knowing most if not all there is to know about something that was the progenitor of a fairly ubiquitous concept. I knew there was a late 60’s, cheap-o black-and-white horror film that launched multiple sequels and innumerable rip-offs and homages, and that it’s been expanded upon and re-conceived and deconstructed and parodied to the point where no aspect of it has gone unexamined.

But still, as I’ve also often said before, there remains some value in going back to the source, the ur-text, and engaging with it on its own merits. To the extent that you can, at any rate; it’s harder than it sounds. I knew the vague outlines of Night of the Living Dead’s plot (which is excessively simplistic to begin with, and I suppose this is where I should insert the obligatory Spoliers!) and I knew there was a famous scene with a little girl zombie, so pretty much from the moment the existence of the Karen character was revealed I was just counting down for her to turn flesh-eater. And even if I hadn’t know about the existence of that famous scene, I still would have been waiting for Karen to turn, because when she’s introduced it’s with ominously vague references to being hurt and needing a doctor, which of course means it’s going to come up later that her injury is in fact a zombie bite and she’s doomed (as is anyone trapped in the basement with her). That’s just a fundamental undead story trick, and Night of the Living Dead is where it all began, so it should get full credit for inventing the tropes of the genre, rather than being penalized for being viewed out of order and seen as been there, done that.

There is a certain intensity to Night of the Living Dead that can’t possibly be diminished by knowing all the history and trivia about it or having seen the remakes and reimaginings beyond number it spawned. Funny enough, it’s not the ghouls themselves that make Night of the Living Dead truly scary, it’s the interactions between the terrified human beings huddled together in the farmhouse, depending on each other yet unable to let go of their pettiness and prejudices. It’s not that the audience fears a bunch of shuffle-stepping extras in gory makeup, it’s that the audience fears for the survivors, or more to point fears they won’t survive, fears that the story we’re watching is a tragedy. As, of course, it turns out to be.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

SUNDAY SPECIAL: Second-hand tunes

I am going to get around to talking about football fandom in this post, eventually, but I am going to start (as I so often manage to do) by talking about being an English major.

In order to graduate in four years with my B.A. in English I needed to take at least two major-track classes every semester. In case I have never made this explicitly clear, I majored in English because I love literature and reading/thinking about/talking about the written word is something I do all the time anyway, and the course requirements for my degree simply gave that general propensity some structure. In many ways it seems like my academic career was the exact opposite of most of my friends, who tended to be government majors or biology majors or (ironically, considering my life today) computer science majors. For them, the classes in their major got progressively harder and harder every year, and by the time we were juniors and seniors they were taking mid-level English classes partly to satisfy the broad-based graduation requirements of a self-respecting liberal arts school and partly as a relaxing change of pace. Whereas I never particularly found 400 level English classes any more difficult than 100 level, and I was taking science classes as my non-major requirements and change of pace, and they would often as not kick my butt. Not that I felt entitled, then or now, to complain about this state of affairs, because I know on balance I got off fairly easy, especially when you factor in the credit I got senior year for my creative writing thesis which to this day seems like a fast one I pulled on the entire English department.

Anyway, at the thoroughly mature age of 18 (bwahaha) I weighed the pros and cons of being employable upon graduation with studying something that would be entertainingly engaging, and therefore wound up taking a multitude of ridiculous classes. In retrospect I sometimes think a very similar calculation was made by the English department chairs, in the sense that all departments need to justify their existence and the easiest way to do so is via enrollment up and down the course offerings, and since the English department wasn't going to woo anyone with promises of lucrative real world careers it might as well entice students with fun classes. So I spent an entire semester digging into fairy tales and folklore, and another semester on Arthurian legends. I took a class on modern literature, which was kind of like using tuition money to go browse the New Releases section at the bookstore. It wasn't all goofball stuff; I took a class on Chaucer, and one on American Lit for which I had to read Moby Dick (and by "had to" I mean "really thoroughly enjoyed").

But a lot of it was goofball stuff! Or at the very least, stuff with no bearing whatsoever on the real world I was allegedly being prepared for. I am of course being self-deprecating in the extreme while in truth I do earnestly believe that reading/analyzing/discussing literature teaches all kinds of valuable life skills (communication, critical thinking, empathy, and good doses of psychology, history, philosophy, &c.) But I'm aware of the scattered grains of truth in the mock-worthy archetypal English major, so when I'm working my way up to talking about the course I took on Restoration drama, I'm inclined to defensively take the first shots at myself.

So, yes, an entire semester studying what happened in England in 1660 when, after 18 years of all public stage performances being banned by the Puritan regime, King Charles re-opened the theaters and there was a vast outpouring of new plays which ranged from sincere treacle to hilariously filthy-minded satire. Most of the focus in the class was on what was or was not shocking back then, implicitly compared to the entertainment culture now (where now = 1995). It was good times. It also introduced me to John Gay's 1728 satirical ballad-drama The Beggar's Opera, which honestly I cannot believe I have never brought up around here over the past four-plus years. The Beggar's Opera (or at least the idea of it) is one of my favorite things in the world.

It's a musical which satirizes both the tropes and the subject matter of its contemporaries of the stage. Most operas of the time were about the cares and concerns of nobility and the upper classes, and their characters were all drawn from that stratum of society. The Beggar's Opera is about the thieves and whores living alongside yet beneath the notice of their social betters. I love (even as I cringe at) a good stick-it-to-The-Man story that lampoons first-world problems, but that's not my favorite thing about the Beggar's Opera. Because it's about poor people who are forced to make do with what they've got, it doesn't feature any original music. The lyrics are all by Gay, but set to tunes written by others, pilfering from a variety of sources: church hymns, folk songs, other operas, &c.

This is such an amazing concept I am continuously gob-struck by the fact that no one has made a modern attempt at something like it. The closest thing we have is the jukebox musical, which combines songs the audience already knows with a simple frame story (which, honestly, the audience already knows as well). Of course that ends up being a limitation where the creators have to either find a pre-existing song that fits the scene they're writing, or write a scene in a certain way to set up the pre-existing song. The Beggar's Opera sidesteps this by changing all the words to the song at will, if not setting words to music that never had lyrics to begin with.

But it's the swapping of one set of verses and choruses for another that really intrigues me. Because Gay chose the songs he used very deliberately for their own inherent satirical impact as well. Or so the professor taught us, and we took him at his word, because by and large it's all entirely out of our modern frame of reference. Gay was able to draw on the associations the audience would make with the music as counterpoint to the ideas his lyrics were expressing, e.g. a prostitute's lament set to the tune of a song about virtuous maidenhood. It would be as if a modern musical had a politician character break into song enumerating the planks his election platform, and the melody was the Oscar Mayer jingle. First the audience has the "hey, I know that song!" reaction, then they get the "heh, that's a ridiculous incongruity, a blowhard stuffed shirt singing the Oscar Mayer song" humor factor and then they get the "ahh, whatever the politician says, he's really just selling something, and also is a wiener" satire. Granted, this may all be happening only subconsciously in all but the most industrious overthinkers (hellooooo!), but it is happening.

And that's just such a great, nuanced, multi-layered way of communicating and entertaining. It's certainly not easy, to sustain the conceit at all through an entire show, let alone to do it really well. But of course I would love to see it done, at all. I'm well aware of the modern existence of parody songs, from the ouevre of Weird Al to the blunted political barbs of acts like the Capitol Steps, but in general I find those lack the same texture. With all due respect to Mr. Yankovic (seriously, he's a national treasure) there's almost no connection between "Beat It" and "Eat It" except that they rhyme, and yet are incongruous concepts. Which is sometimes all you need to be funny! But there's no intertextual dialogue, no meta-commenting on Michael Jackson or gang violence achieved by changing the words to address a picky eater, nor vice versa. It's just silly for silliness's sake, which again is fine. Just not what I'm talking about.

I can think of only one shining example of recent vintage in which a song was re-recorded with completely different words, and the choice of original song was bang-on perfect not just because it fit the meter or rhyme scheme but because of the tension in the interplay between old lyrics and new. Remember when I said I was going to bring this around to football? Congratulations, you made it! I am of course referring to NBC's theme song for NFL Sunday Night Football, "Waiting All Day For Sunday Night" which borrowed the instrumental tracks from Joan Jett's "I Hate Myself For Loving You".

The lyrics for "Waiting All Day For Sunday Night" are pretty terrible, but of course they are utterly superfluous. NBC decided its game-of-the-week broadcast needed an opening theme and so somebody crapped out some passable lines about how awesome football is in prime time. Honestly, I'm struggling to come up with another sentence with which to describe the song which isn't totally redundant. It's all about the broadcast of the game itself, it does what it says on the tin!

But the source material? I mean, yes, it's a killer riff, with that tough-but-not-too-tough edge that appeals to the masses of Americans the show is aimed at. And it was originally sung by a woman, which means having the new one sung by a woman is no stretch of cognitive dissonance, and that allows for some man-pandering eye candy in the opening as well. Still, is there any reason why they couldn't have taken the Blackhearts' arguably better known "I Love Rock-n-Roll" and changed it to "I Love Sunday Night" or something?

I would like to believe (and please, if anyone ever gets definitive proof that I am wrong, don't ever tell me about it) that whoever was tasked with putting together the Sunday Night Football theme chose "I Hate Myself For Loving You" very deliberately because it is a song about giving your heart to someone and having it broken by disappointment over and over again. It is a song about being let down and being self-loathing about it because you really should know better. And if there is a better way to describe the relationship that many NFL fans have with their sub-.500, never-contender teams, I have yet to stumble across it. This is of course especially poignant to me this season as the Giants are going from bad to worse to the root of all misery and suffering on Earth. But I noted the connection between the two contexts, the original song and the NFL's re-purposing of it, almost as soon as they rolled it out however many years ago. I thought it was GENIUS.

It took a few weeks this season before my wife and I actually made the effort to get the kids to bed on time and get ourselves onto the couch before Sunday Night Football. We finally did, though, and I got to see the newly revamped (pun intended) version, with Carrie Underwood singing "Waiting All Day For Sunday Night", taking over for Faith Hill. That in and of itself feels like a noteworthy passing of the generational torch; I think of Faith Hill as belonging to my cohort (she's older than me and broke big on the scene when I was in college) and Carrie Underwood (who's almost a decade younger than me) as obviously being owned by the American Idol generation, which is Not My Thing (man, I'm really slagging on the singing competition shows this month). But way, way more significant than which blonde pop-country starlet is singing the song is, of course, the song itself. AND THEY'VE CHANGED IT. THOSE FOOLS.

It's subtle, but it's unmistakable: "Waiting All Day For Sunday Night" is no longer sung to the tune of "I Hate Myself For Loving You". The guitars and drums haven't been tweaked very much, but the vocal melody is altered just enough to make it more of a rip-off analogue than a straight borrowing. I'm sure this has at least something to do with Carrie Underwood's artistic ego, and wanting to make her version of the song more hers (whatever that means) but the end result is that the connection between the two songs has been severed, at least as far as I'm concerned, and all the undercutting subtext is lost. Pity. The intro to televised national sports was a weird place for a successor to John Gay to be hiding out anyway, but the world's a poorer place without it.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Saturday Grab Bag Goin' to the Chapel

The fam is on the road once again to attend a wedding in Delaware, not to mention celebrate my Very Little Bro's birthday! (He's 26 today, so maybe he's not so Very Little anymore?) I actually have a longish post scheduled for tomorrow as well, but here's a few random odds and ends to tide everyone over.

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So on Wednesday morning as the VRE train was pulling into the station before my destination, a gentlemen who had been riding farther back than I was walked past me to deboard, and as he did he kind of nudged me familiarly. I had no idea who this guy was, but apparently we both must ride the same train every day and we both must sit in approximately the same seats everyday, because he had seen me with the portable DVD player balanced on my lap enough times that the sight of a book in my hands prompted him to josh me, "What, did you run out of movies?"

Of course the little gibbering voices inside my head all cried out in response, "Run out of movies? Are you kidding me?!? I could watch three feature films a day and never even catch up with all the movies I want or need or intend to see! There's too much! Always, always too much!!!"

But what I actually said in reply was, "Ha, ha, nope, just taking a break!"

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Then of course on Thursday and Friday I was back to watching DVDs again, all (arguably) in the interest of SPOOKTOBERFEST. Friday I watched the original Night of the Living Dead, which is incontestably on-theme for the month (and which I will get around to discussing a bit more in-depth next week, I promise), but Thursday I caught up a bit on Smallville's final season. I watched the fourth and fifth episodes, and part of the sixth, all of which were broadcast back in October of 2010. So one was a Homecoming episode, and one had Lois playing fan-service dress-up because she was possessed by an Egyptian goddess (like you do) , and the one broadcast closest to Halloween was called "Harvest" and, from the opening scenes that I saw, seems like a creepy Children of the Corn homage.

Anyway, whether or not Smallville counts as Halloween entertainment is largely beside the point I'm interested in making, which is that I think I have some serious Stockholm Syndrome with regards to the show. At the end of the Egyptian-possession adventure Clark finally tells Lois about his double identity, taking their romance-for-the-ages to the next level. The will-they-won't-they convolutions the show went through for years before giving in to that particular plot point was agonizing, and yet when they finally committed to it I found myself surprisingly, happily gratified by it. I should be so sick of Smallville by now, but clearly I am suffering from more profound emotional disturbances.

Just so we're clear, I'm almost done watching (and probably talking about) Smallville. 16 and a half episodes to go, and I'm resolved to get through them all before the end of the year!

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I feel I would be remiss if I didn't at least mention the record-breaking point spread for tomorrow's Broncos-Jaguars matchup, which of course should have factored into my decision-making for the Pick'em Pool. But here's the thing: I never, ever, EVER pick the Jaguars when I'm filling out my weekly sheet. I got burned by them one too many times when I first started playing in the Pick'em Pool, during a time when I was still making at least a half-hearted attempt to play fantasy football as well. It proved extremely difficult on a neurological level to separate out the fact that someone like Maurice Jones-Drew could be a valuable fantasy asset yet still play for a team unlikely to cover the spread. Eventually I washed my hands of both fantasy football and Jacksonville, and never looked back. It's actually served me pretty well.

To a certain extent it reminds me of a piece of advice for blackjack players: figure out if you are the kind of gambler who hits on 16 or stands, and then do that consistently. Every hand, no matter what the dealer or anyone else has, stick to a single strategy when you have 16. It doesn't really affect the outcome and make you any more likely to win or lose in that context, obviously, but it simplifies the game and makes it less stressful, at least. So that's me with the Jags: always bet against them, no matter the odds, the spread, the streak, whatever. We'll see if Peyton manages to light them up by a four touchdown gap or more.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Bibliocinephilia

I noted in passing on Tuesday that while I have never seen James Whale’s film adaptation of Frankenstein, I have at least read Mary Shelley’s novel (as if it’s very important that I burnish my Frankenstein cred). That got me thinking about other overlaps between the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list and the literary canon and my own reading habits.

To point to another example relevant to the 1001 Movies Blog Club, the web portal for the club updates on Thursdays and this year Halloween falls on a Thursday, and so the assignment for that week is Rosemary’s Baby. Another novel I have read and film I have not seen! But even with three weeks between now and then, I know I’m not going to watch Rosemary’s Baby any time soon. I have adopted a general policy of avoiding the filmography of Roman Polanski. I think there’s a lot of interesting, meaningful debate to be had about the separability between a bad human being and the good works of art created by them, and I don’t judge anyone else for consuming Polanski’s output, but I would just as soon hold off until he’s dead and gone, incapable of deriving any financial benefit from me renting one of his flicks. He’s 80 years old, I probably won’t have to wait that long. (Am I a bad human being for nursing a certain expectation for someone else’s demise? Probably.) Anyway, bottom line, I’m deliberately opting out of watching Rosemary’s Baby, and consoling myself with having internalized the source material.

Out of curiosity, I went through the full Master List of 1001 Movies and identified which movies I have never seen, yet have read the basis for. Turns out there’s an even dozen:

All Quiet on the Western Front
Frankenstein
The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo
The Grapes of Wrath
Great Expectations
Les Miserables
Life of Pi
The Masque of the Red Death
A Passage to India
The Right Stuff
Rosemary's Baby
Slumdog Millionaire

Les Mis was a book I had to read in high school, and there was a class field trip near the end of the year to see the show on Broadway, so clearly I feel like I have twice the exposure to the source material for the recent movie version of the musical. The Masque of the Red Death was a short story I had to read in school, and the Roger Corman/Vincent Price collaboration takes some liberties making it into a feature film, but I’m going to count it. Slumdog Millionaire is the one movie on my “But I read the book!” list that changed the title of the original novel (which was Q&A).

I also found a baker’s dozen of movies on the Master List where I have both seen the flick and read the source, and they are:

Akira
Carrie
Gone With the Wind
It's a Wonderful Life
The Jungle Book
To Kill a Mockingbird
The Princess Bride
The Shawshank Redemption
The Shining
The Silence of the Lambs
West Side Story
Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory
The Wizard of Oz

Unsurprisingly, three of those books (Carrie, The Shining and the novella Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption) were written by Stephen King. Akira is a bit of a cheat, as I’ve been working my way through the original six volumes of manga and as of this posting have only finished four of them, but I have every intention of finishing. It’s a Wonderful Life is another short-story-based film (and another bit of trivia fodder, the original story was titled “The Greatest Gift”). West Side Story is of course a modern retelling of Romeo and Juliet, and I’m counting it because I (like every other ninth grader, ever) read Romeo and Juliet in high school but also because I read West Side Story for a summer writing class a year or so later. I read Charlie and the Chocolate Factory in elementary school and my fifth grade class put on a stage production of the story in which I played Willy Wonka. I have seen the movie about a hundred times. Deep, abiding love for that story.

So, I believe I am entitled to about 25 points of extra credit in the 1001 Movies quest. I’m not sure how exactly extra credit works in this context? Maybe I can be excused from watching some of the multi-hour experimental films and call it a wash?

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Waiting it out

My mom is in town, I think I mentioned that was upcoming, and it has been enlightening watching her influence on my children. My mom hasn’t visited since the little girl was a couple of months old, so not only is she meeting the baby for the first time it’s really as if she’s meeting all of them (and they, her). The little girl has blossomed from infant to tiny little near-person, and the little guy of course is vastly different as a five-year-old and proud kindergartener than he was at three.

So mom landed on Tuesday afternoon and my wife picked her up at the airport on the way home from work, and when I got home everyone was together in the living room and it was just about time to start dinner. Of course that’s the traditional starting point for the entire gauntlet of ritualized activities that culminate with the two older children in bed for the night, but nothing really went according to schedule, plan, or anything else remotely resembling a modicum of control. The kids fussed about eating the dinner I had made, then the little girl didn’t want to take her bath, then she wanted Nana to give it to her (which my wife and I ruled out because of a combination of logistics, explaining wheer everything is and how it works, beingmore trouble than it’s worth, plus my mom’s declining health not necessarily making her a strong candidate for leaning over the tub and washing an energetic and strong-willed child). Ultimately we appeased the little girl by letting Nana read her a bedtime story, but of course my dear sweet sainted mother failed to realize that our daughter will always ask for the moon to see what she can get away with, and while my wife and I nix that kind of thing pretty quickly, my mom was delighted to read her granddaughter multiple books and then sing her multiple songs and generally push off bedtime for I-lost-track-how-long. Meanwhile the little guy was dragging his feet getting ready for bed after his sister, waiting for Nana, because he wanted to show Nana the videos he watches at bedtime and we couldn’t start without her. So I was torn between knocking on the little girl’s door to suggest that I finish putting her to bed (quickly) while my mom hung out with the little guy (to get him back on the bedtime track) and just waiting it out, because if I interrupted the little girl’s Nana time there might be a cataclysmic meltdown, although by waiting it out who know how frantic the little guy might get.

I’ll break the suspense and say I waited it out, all of about five more minutes, and everything worked out fine in the end. But for those few evening hours the kids were just cuckoo, showing off and demanding extra attention in every possible way. Which, needless to say, did not bode well for Nana’s weeklong visit.


Sweet, but destructive.

And then of course, everything was basically back to normal last night. Wednesdays are the night my wife works late, so I got home from work and made dinner and this time it was something the kids approved of, and they ate peacefully and then the little girl asked nana to read her one story, and the little guy was just playing with toys by himself, and when the story was finished I scooped the little girl up and told her it was bath time and she was the most compliant little angel you could ever envision. By the time she was almost ready to lie down, her big brother had come upstairs of his own volition, so I got him started on his bath as the little girl was brushing her teeth and soon enough she was in bed and I was back in the bathroom with the little guy. All the while my mom was keeping an eye on the baby downstairs, which made my life immeasurably easier. And the little guy was perfectly happy to watch videos by himself, and he got in bed after that without complaint. By the time my wife got home things were pretty quiet and nobody had any throbbing pains at the clenchpoint of their jawbones or anything.

It’s yet another microcosm of a simple fact: the kids have good days and bad days. Sometimes external forces conspire to cause them all to have an off day simultaneously, and that can be pretty rough. But it passes. They come around to being lovely. And then they go off the deep end again, singly or in multiples. Back and forth. Up and down. It’s hard to remember sometimes, when it feels like the entire world is crashing down because one or more of my children are inconsolably distraught over some slight (real or imagined) but I really should try to fasten it in my mind. There’s absolutely no point in entertaining thoughts like “How are we supposed to deal with this?” in regards to outbreaks of crazy amongst the younger generation in my household, as if it’s actually a newly emerging longterm status quo to be reckoned with and strategized against. Everything is momentary, and you deal by making it to the next moment.