Saturday, December 28, 2013

Saturday Grab Bag Looks Back (At Last Weekend)

Last Sunday my wife and I did indeed keep our date to see The Hobbit at the Alamo Drafthouse. We both agreed that it was a good flick, better than the first installment in terms of overall structure and pacing but also in terms of including the two elements of the book which for which my wife was prepared to geek out the most: the escape in the barrels, and Smaug. Neither of which disappointed. My only minor quibble with the movie was not enough Bilbo (because I will vehemently defend the assertion that Master Baggins is the role Martin freeman was born to play, and he animates the character ex-freaking-quisitely) which is odd considering the movie is super-title The Hobbit, but ah well.

We got to the Alamo before our theater had been cleaned from the previous showing, so we hit the Glass Half Full taproom to await the opening of the doors, and within the bar they were showing the Cowboys Redskins game, and we ended up striking up a conversation with an older gentleman who enjoyed laughing at the misfortunes of Jerry Jones as much as we did. (We found out after the movie was over that the Cowboys actually came back and won, but I think our main points held, i.e. Jones is the worst.)

As we were leaving I mused to my wife that I could happily spend an entire day (or at least a Sunday in the fall/early winter) at the Alamo, hanging out in the bar drinking craft beer and watching football and then catching a late dinner/movie combo. That is the kind of egregiously self-indulgent crap I’m frequently daydreaming about, so I wasn’t sure if my wife would roll her eyes or simply let it pass without comment. But she went a third way, and strongly insisted, “Don’t think that didn’t already occur to me!” Two peas in a pod, we are.

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One more wild tangent inspired by the Alamo excursion, which may henceforth be known as The Most Gen-X-ish Thing I’ve Ever Written.

I made sure we got to the Alamo so early because I really wanted to see the pre-show of clips in the half-hour before showtime. I had in fact been trying to predict what would show up in said audiovisual collage, and then ended up being for the most part utterly surprised by what the programmer ended up choosing. I had expected some footage from the old Rankin-Bass animated adaptations of Hobbit and Lord of the Rings, maybe some of the dragon-intensive footage from Disney’s Sleeping Beauty or George Lucas’s Willow. But they went in a more outright humorous and ridiculous direction, including ironic so-bad-they’re-good clips of old Hercules movies and an interactive VCR game modeled on Dungeons & Dragons, Sir Ian McKellan’s appearance on Ricky Gervais’s Extras talking about getting into character as Gandalf, and the YouTube video of the remix “They’re Taking the Hobbits to Isengard” plus the video where Orlando Bloom sings along with the remix on someone’s phone. (These videos may be yesterday's news to you, but as I've copped to recently, old memes are often new to me.)

The off-brand VHS D&D might seem out of left field, but the truth is most of the Dungeons & Dragons game is incredibly indebted to archetypes and tropes that Tolkien codified in Lord of the Rings. For that reason, I was also predicting the pre-show clips might include the scene from Freaks & Geeks where James Franco creates a character for a D&D game, a dwarf named Carlos. (I still think the programmer missed out by overlooking that one.) In the same vein I guessed there might be a clip of the old Dungeons & Dragons Saturday morning cartoon, and that was the one prediction I actually got right. But it also wound up delivering a shocking revelation. Bear in mind that I haven’t sat down to watch the animated Dungeons & Dragons since it was being broadcast, so I have only fuzzy (albeit affectionate and nostalgic) memories of it.

Hold that thought for one moment as I make a startling cartoon-based confession. I used to watch a lot of the Transformers cartoon, for years, but I was never that big a fan of Optimus Prime. I understood that he was the ultimate selfless leader, and I didn’t exactly dislike the character, but I always gravitated towards the quirkier supporting characters. I was never quite sure why this was the case, although on some level I thought it might have something to do with my general anti-authoritarian tendencies, which of course gets all up into the morass of my childhood relationship with my dad (TOY-LINE BASED CARTOONS x PARENTS’ DIVORCE = GEN-X BINGO!)

Anyway, I saw the Transformers animated movie when it came out and years later I would talk to some of my peers about the scene (spoiler!) where Optimus Prime dies, which a lot of my contemporaries found deeply affecting but I, as laid out above, really did not. And then many years after all that Michael Bay took on the Transformers live-action movies, and I have never had any interest in seeing any of those. Still, I couldn’t help but observe the interweb nerd-rage that erupted when it was suggested that anyone other than Peter Cullen might provide the voice of Optimus Prime in the new movies. If the original voice actor from the cartoons was still alive then why wouldn’t he get the gig? And of course ultimately he did. Again, I didn’t think it was that big a deal, I didn’t really realize that the voice was so integral a part of the character, but apparently I was in a distinct minority.

OK, right, back to the Alamo, the Hobbit pre-show, and a clip of the Dungeons & Dragons cartoon where the heroic kids are in a castle being beseiged by the Demo-Dragon, who of course has been sicced on the castle by the ultimate evil villain for the series, Venger. And suddenly everything fell into place: Peter Cullen did the voice of Venger. No wonder I never really warmed up to Optimus Prime!

I was absurdly into the Dungeons & Dragons cartoon as a kid, and I was that perfect age where my boundaries between reality and fantasy were tenuous at best. I’m pretty sure I had nightmares about Venger at least once or twice. I was also too young to really think about things like voice acting and the production behind cartoons and whatnot, so it didn’t quite occur to me that an actor had performed the dialogue for Venger and the same actor later performed the dialogue for Optimus Prime. I never made the conscious connection at all. But clearly it subconsciously made me extremely skeptical of the leader of the Autobots.

Thank you, this has been The Most Gen-X-ish Thing I’ve Ever Written.

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One more quick Hobbit-related note: once they got to Laketown, I kept experiencing this nagging feeling that I should know who the actor playing Bard the Bowman was. I looked it up later, and there's really no reason for it, because Luke Evans hasn't been in anything else I've seen, at that. HOWEVER, I'm going to say right now that, based on his career info on Wikipedia (including some projects he's set to be involved with in the future), he is going to be a strong contender for a Christopher Lee award one of these days. Major character portrayal in Jackson's Middle Earth saga? In the can. Dracula? Set to star in the coming soon Dracula Untold. Major bonus points for comic book properties near and dear to my heart? He just might play Eric in the coming reboot of The Crow. Are you kidding me? For extra credit, he's been Apollo in Clash of the Titans and Aramis in a steam-punk Three Musketeers. So basically he's one major sci-fi Wars or Trek franchise away from running the table.

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Oh and before I get too far from the topic of football, I did want to acknowledge that as of today the Steelers are still in it! As my wife and I were sitting in the taproom she noted one of the scores on the ticker, I think it was the Patriots' trouncing of Baltimore, which fed into some back-of-the-envelope calculations she had done about what improbably sequence of wins and losses needed to transpire across the AFC in the final two weeks of the regular season for the Steelers to take the wild card. And last Sunday, all of those improbable outcomes actually came to pass. Tomorrow should be an interesting day around our house.

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So the other highlight around our house last weekend was a Saturday Night Dance Party. One minute the little guy and the little girl were messing around with a pair of sunglasses belonging to their mother, and then they were taking turns putting them on, declaring themselves "rock stars", and busting out some primo dance moves in the middle of the living room. At first this spontaneous booty-shaking was performed without soundtrack, but I quickly got my phone out and brought up a year-end mega-mix for accompaniment, and the kids were very much into it.

The little guy's take on "dancing", as befits the boundless energy of a five-year-old, mostly involves spinning around a lot, occasionally stopping to strike an heroic pose, and then spinning some more. Sometimes all that whirling causes him to lose his balance and fall down, but he's pretty quick to turn that into an opportunity to pose in a more floor-oriented way, and then he's right back up and spinning to the music again. His sister, on the other hand, is more dedicated to standing in one place, bouncing at the knees, and pointing index fingers skyward, left right in alternation with the beat. So clearly she got to wear the sunglasses for most of the dancing, since they would have just gone flying off the little guy's face.

After the mega-mix I switched things up with Andrew WK's "Party Hard", which the little guy loved but the little girl was a little less enchanted by. So from there I went to "The Fox" and they were both back in the groove.

Friday, December 27, 2013

In praise of minor deities (part 2)

Welcome back and praise Decembrion, the ancient Roman god of Top Ten Lists! My observance of the ritual of year-in-review continues from this post. Without further ado, and still in arbitrary order, following are (the remaining five of) my own personal Top Ten (or Eleven!) Points of Pop Culture for 2013.

7. Best Song both my wife and I discovered independently: "Recovery" by Frank Turner (Runner Up: N/A)

Long-time readers will recognize my familiar lament of the dearth of new music in my life, or specifically new music that is my kind of music. (To quickly sum up: the old alternative rock station that kept me in the loop of the new went the way of the dodo some time ago, and now I listen mostly to the news on NPR or the local rock station which plays mostly 90's stuff or the local dinosaur-rock station, and all of the above only when I'm in the car which is not that often because I take the train to work. My wife often points out that we have satellite radio in the house which has a new music station, but I've found that station covers such a wide swath of popular genres that the signal-to-noise ratio for my personal taste is low. Also, I am a giant pain in the tuchus.)

Still, every once in a while the stars align and I will actually hear something new which pushes my buttons. Such was the pleasantly surprising case when I heard Frank Turner's "Recovery" on the radio a couple of times and liked it more and more every time. But even better was my wife spontaneously starting a conversation with "So I heard this song ..." and realizing we had both been digging it, not least because in its own way the track has attributes which make us think of each other. It's got a distinct young Billy Bragg vibe about it, which is absolutely something that my wife introduced me to. It also has lyrics about the mood-lifting properties of "serotonin boosters, cider and some kind of smelling salts" which must be the part that just screams my name.

And as should be pretty evident, there's really no runner-up in this category. Chancing upon a cool new song out in the FM wasteland is hard enough these days; a synchronized stumbling-upon with my wife is exponentially more unlikely.

8. Biggest Accomplishment: Finishing Smallville (Runner Up: see below)

It wasn't that long ago that I posted my big retrospective post about Smallville, so I assume this one is self-explanatory. However, I did leave one thing out of my ramblings, an oversight I can correct here. I will always have a soft spot in my heart for Smallville because the tail end of a re-run was playing on the television in the maternity ward waiting room in the pre-dawn hours when my wife and I arrived for her scheduled induction to deliver our youngest child. Right up to the birth itself, my wife and I were torn between a couple of different potential names for the baby, and what tipped the balance was me taking it as a sign that the Smallville episode that had greeted us that morning, the very scene on the screen in fact, featured a minor character who shared a name with one of our two leading contenders. The Smallville factor had never been a reason that the name in question survived the selection process through the entire pregnancy, and in fact I might not have made the connection if not for the coincidence that morning. But I doubt I will ever forget it.

(In my defense, when we were holding our newborn son in the delivery room and trying to determine which name would win out, I did lead off with "You're going to think I'm crazy, but ..." before letting my wife in on the whole sign-from-a-cheesy-tv-show angle, which was the first she heard it mentioned. She took it in stride. Again I am a lucky, lucky guy.)

As I mentioned in the first half of this Top Ten exercise, I went to the movie theater four whole times this year, and I do consider that an accomplishment, along with the 50-plus movies I caught on smaller screens. I had also resolved to write at least 20 reviews for the 1001 Movies Blog Club, and to break my personal record of 250 blog posts in a year, and I managed to (barely) clear both of those, as well. All in all it was a high-throughput pop culture year for me.

9. Biggest Unfinished Business for 2013: Game of Thrones Season 2 (Runner Up: Every book in my closet.)

Once again, timing is everything, and it may very well turn out that in these last few nights of the year my wife and I will carve out a couple of hours to watch the final couple of episodes of Game of Thrones's second season. But as of this moment we are mid-storyline (though, to be fair, every Game of Thrones fan, people who watch the show in real time on HBO and people who read the books, are all mid-storyline at George R.R. Martin's mercy.) It's an understandable phenomenon, how we got here: over the course of the year our youngest has raced through various developmental milestones which eat up a lot of our free time. And rightly so, priorities, &c. We've had stretches where we know that even though all three kids are in bed, the baby is probably going to wake up again in an hour or maybe less, and we've had stretches where all three kids are down for the count but frankly so are mommy and daddy, at which point we can handle a sitcom or a reality show but not the epic grandiosity of Game of Thrones, where we want to savor every frame. So Season 2 sits on the credenza, right next to the wireless router, and waits. We will get to it when we get to it, if not this year then certainly early next (perhaps ultimately spurred on by the arrival of our copy of Season 3!)

In an unintended consequence of my theme months experiment this year, I found myself acquiring various books (sometimes as gifts, sometimes because I have no self-control) and setting them on a shelf in my closet, to be pulled down and opened when I had time to read them, i.e. time not already ostensibly dedicated to some overarching theme to which said books did not happen to belong. So there is a large backlog of reading material literally hanging over my head every time I go to pick out an outfit for work. I'd like to be able to say that I will chip away at it next year, but I may once again constrain my own consumption by arbitrary rules. (Stay tuned to find out how!)

10. Biggest Logistical Disappointment: Spooktoberfest (Runner Up: Damaged goods)

Speaking of Theme Months, as part of my lead-up to Halloween this year I was planning on watching a couple of specific horror movies, which happen to be on the master Must-See list: Psycho and The Horror of Dracula. However, as October approached those particular entries on my Netflix queue acquired the dreaded Very Long Wait labels. So I was never able to get my hands in them before the end of my Spooktoberfest marathon. I can understand how those movies would be in high demand that time of year, but it was still frustrating.

And that was not my only frustration with Netflix this year! More than once I climbed onto the VRE in the morning, pulled out my portable DVD player and a red envelope that had gone straight from my mailbox to my workbag, unsheathed the disc and found that it had a massive crack in it, rendering the movie unplayable. Of course Netflix takes those movies back no questions asked and sends a replacement immediately, but that process takes days. Another buzzkill.

I can still remember, not too long ago, when I used to chide myself for not taking full advantage of my Netflix subscription, sometimes going a month or more without ever watching a single rented flick. Now I tear through four or five a month, and I'm complaining about availability and structural integrity. I could admit that I'm always complaining about something, but I could also hold this up as fairly clear evidence that Netflix really is trying to steer all of its customers either fully into digital streaming, or straight out the exit door. Ostensibly they're continuing the physical disc rental business, but when you can't rent Psycho any time in October and a movie that just came out six months ago is already trashed ... you do the math.

11. Biggest Anticipation for 2014: Pompeii (Runner Up: Too many to count?)

In order to not end on a bummer note, and in order to crank this list up to 11, I conclude with a more forward-looking item. (At the same time, this hearkens back a bit to one of my older pop resolutions posts from the past.) Therefore I predict that one of the pop culture highlights of the coming year will be the movie Pompeii, which belongs to that rarest breed of beasts: a film which demands to be seen on the big screen and yet is not a comic book adaptation or major franchise sequel. Furthermore, it should make for an exemplary date movie, since it has two elements which appeal very strongly to my wife: classical antiquity, and Kit Harrington.

My wife and I have more or less come to complete agreement that whenever we go to the trouble of securing the services of a babysitter and paying full price for the cinematic experience, we might as well go all-in and do it at the Alamo Drafthouse. (Come back tomorrow for the report on our most recent excursion.) The Alamo is truly fantastic, but it occurs to me that my presumptive highlight of 2014 will be "going to see Pompeii at the Alamo." Disaster upon disaster! All we need is to add in a few Hindenbergs and a dash of Mrs. O'Leary's cow.

Aside from that volcanic outing, I'm not sure what I'll look back on having enjoyed the most from the perspective of this time next year. I'm certainly not giving up on comic book adaptation movies, much as I enjoy the occasional change of pace, and I have a lot of faith that both X-Men: Days of Future past and Guardians of the Galaxy are going to be at least somewhat awesome. There's also a rumored possibility that the third and final book in the Kingkiller Chronicles, The Doors of Stone, will actually be published sometime next year. Not only am I dying to know how that story ends, but it should be an epic communal experience since I've managed to get my wife, my dad and at least a couple of my buddies hooked on those novels as well. And best of all, there's always the near-certain possibility that something amazing will come along over the next twelve months which I never anticipated.

In any case, thanks for following along with my dissections and digressions this past year. I hope it was as entertaining for you as it was for me. (The year, I mean, not my endless ramblings; there's no way those amuse anyone else remotely as much as they do me.)

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Happy Boxing Day!

Hoping everyone had a lovely Christmas and is taking it easy on the day after. Remember, regular blogging (more or less) will resume tomorrow!

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

"What do you want to do tonight?"

Soon, soon, we'll hear it on the rooftop ... the prancing and pawing of each tiny ...

Uh-oh.

Maybe a brief hibernation and/or pretending we're not home is in order. Be back with a regular post on Friday.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Unofficially, the vacation starts now

I’ve heard a lot of people complaining this year about how Christmas falls on a Wednesday this year (“And New Year’s does, too!” some of them add, the ones who apparently have never noticed that Christmas Day and New Years Day are always on the same day of the week every year and that the alignment goes without saying, but in an effort to observe the spirit of the season I have been letting this slide) and how inconvenient it is in terms of planning vacations, travel, and so on. My wife works in a client-oriented field that includes weekend hours, so those kind of scheduling issues are kind of omnipresent for us; when Christmas falls on a Friday there’s still a pretty good chance that my wife’s place of business will be open the very next day, and she’ll be expected to dutifully report for her regular shift. So in that sense, I’m more than sympathetic to the challenges.

On the other hand, my personal narrow-view take on it is that a mid-week Christmas (and New Years) is really a best-of-both-worlds scenario. I showed up for work today and it has been sort of like a quasi-vacation. My contracting boss is already gone on leave for the holiday, as are a lot of other folks who decided they would blow two to four days of paid vacation time in order to be off from the evening of Friday the 20th until the morning of either Thursday the 26th or Monday the 30th. Not too bad, and good for them. For those of us still inhabiting the office, it’s nice and quiet. The VRE wasn’t too crowded this morning, either. I imagine tomorrow will be much the same (if not moreso) PLUS since we usually are given 59 minutes leave on the day before a holiday, I anticipate getting out of the office early, which you’ll never catch me complaining about.

I opted to spend four days of paid vacation time to take off the duration between the afternoon of Tuesday the 24th and the morning of Thursday January 2nd. I don’t know exactly how many other people will be back in action on the second day of the year, but at least a few people will still be on vacation (if the big collective contracting calendar is to be believed) and in any case it’s just one day, followed by a BizCasFri that will almost certainly be the occasion of countless people (myself included) rationalizing that their New Years resolution to get organized and on top of things really doesn’t count as going into effect until Monday the 6th.

And that’s the next time I’ll be writing a work-related blog post, I reckon. I can’t imagine there’s many people for whom that’s one of the highlight attractions for reading (although it more than justifies itself as a release valve for me so I don’t pop off at my coworkers in any truly regrettable ways), but if you’re an exception to my assumption, see you in two weeks.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Marvel Comics: My Untold Story (5) - Imitations and Homages

In my last post I tried to convey the sense that, for most of the 60's and 70's and 80's, children like myself who picked sides between DC Comics and Marvel Comics felt as though that choice meant something, whether it was indicating the possession of discriminating tastes by preferring Marvel's realistic approach (relatively speaking, Peter Parker's melodramatically complicated love life bore a closer resemblance to life as it is lived than Clark Kent's nonsensical eternally chaste love triangle with Lois Lane and Superman), or whether it was simply a matter of differentiating one brother from another. The argument could theoretically be made in either direction, though, and someone could align themselves with Batman's classic roots and dismiss the histrionics of the X-Men. The point was that an inflection point existed, and all but demanded decisively breaking one way or the other.

Except that's not really true. With comic book titles publishing once a month, and most characters appearing in only one book (in rare exceptions, two), chances were extremely high that even the most devoted Fantastic Four fan would find himself clutching his allowance looking over the new offerings the other three weeks of the month and picking up something different. And in that moment the intrigue of a truly dynamic cover could very well trump the vague notions of publisher loyalty. Forced in a schoolyard debate to pick one company or the other to buy from exclusively for the remainder of eternity, an average kid could settle on Marvel or DC, but those hypotheticals were never binding. Preferring Marvel wasn't automatically equivalent to never, ever reading DC, and vice versa. The only way to identify with one company over the other was to read both.

Because most kids reading comics were at least familiar with the offerings on both sides, Marvel and DC Comics always knew there was a built-in audience eager to hand over money in exchange for intercompany crossovers. Some Iron Man fans might occasionally read a stray issue of The Atom, and some Atom fans might peruse the pages of Iron Man now and then, but put both characters together in the same story in one book, and the draw would be a larger audience than either character could command alone. Factoring in pure novelty, it might even sell more copies than both solo heroes' books combined. For all the analysis of house styles and narrative philosophies, Marvel and DC were primarily interested in making money, and most of the time taking cheap shots at one another in their editorial pages furthered that end, just as most of the time gently urging their existing fans to see partisan support of one company over the other furthered that end. But once in a while, cooperation could make some serious return on investment, as well.

Sometimes this worked out as well in practice as it did in theory. Marvel and DC writers, artists and editors collaborated on a joint project starring Superman and Spider-Man, the respective flagship characters, in 1976. Many other intercompany crossovers would follow, despite the continuing rivalry and competition between the publishers and various logistical hurdles to clear. Those same hurdles had in fact prevented crossovers from happening in the years prior to 1976, which at various times led to peculiar repurposings of completed scripts which became unusable. Such circumstances gave rise to Marvel's Squadron Sinister, on the heels of which came the Squadron Supreme.

The backstory, as briefly as I can condense, went thusly: in the late 60's the writer of Marvel's Avengers and the writer of DC's Justice League of America batted back and forth the possibility of an intercompany crossover featuring the two powerhouse teams, each of which showcased many marquee characters of their respective publishers. Storylines were composed which, in the honored tradition of giving fans what they want, revolved around the two teams joining forces only after first battling one another due to some kind of misunderstanding, thus settling years' worth of childish contemplations as to who would win in a fight, Thor or Green Lantern. The tale was essentially done except for finishing touches when it finally dawned on someone that the legal departments would have to get involved to sort out copyright issues, production costs, profit-sharing and whatnot, all of which ultimately doomed the dream. However, not one to waste the underpinnings of a good yarn, the Avengers writer decided to deliver on deadline a script in which Captain America, Iron Man, Thor and their allies battled a brand new team of villains ... who all happened to have powersets and costumes and codenames extremely reminiscent of Superman, Batman, the Flash and Green Lantern, altered just enough so as not to criminally infringe on the competition's intellectual property. (For what it's worth, the Justice League eventually ended up encountering original characters who were high evocative of certain Avengers, as well, plus many years later DC and Marvel would overcome every obstacle and publish a proper and highly ambitious Avengers and Justice League throwdown.)

Since the analogues of Superman and friends were unveiled in a story as pure antagonists, they were dubbed the Squadron Sinister. The story was on par with most other Marvel adventures circa 1969 and the winking meta-narrative of the Avengers trouncing an evil Justice League doubtless made an indelible impression. So much so that the characters would return again and again, with increasingly convoluted origins (as is the inevitable fate of almost all popular comic book characters) that eventually expanded to include cosmic beings bestowing powers and costumes on Earthling miscreants, but in fact borrowing the inspiration of said powers and costumes from a team of bonafide superheroes inhabiting a parallel Earth. This allowed Marvel creators to have it both ways, and utilize the Squadron Sinister whenever they wanted Marvel heroes to fight DC heroes in the pages of marvel comics, and the Squadron Supreme whenever they wanted both sets of heroes to team up. Placing the Squadron Supreme on an alternate version of Earth allowed them to be kept in reserve for occasional appearances only, dodging the question of why Captain America wouldn't immediately recruit the functional equivalent of Superman or the Flash into the Avengers on a permanent basis. Of course, parallel earths afford creators with other narrative possibilities as well.

DC Comics established its multiverse of various Earths right around the same time that Marvel Comics came into being with Fantastic Four #1. For DC, it was essentially a necessity to explain, for example, how the World War II era versions of the Flash and Green Lantern could co-exist with the Space Age reinterpretations of same, or more to the point, how Superman and Batman could have close to three decades' worth of ongoing adventures and yet never have aged a day. Solution: on Earth-1, Green Lantern was a test pilot and Superman was a young man, while on Earth-2, Green Lantern was a train engineer and Superman was, in fact, getting old. In theory, this allowed every comic DC had published since 1938 to have "really happened", with the caveat that not everything had happened in the same universe. It gets more complicated from there.

Marvel took the idea of a multiverse and ran with it, and immediately took it to more interesting places. While DC required two distinct Earths to explain how a man in red shirt and blue pants could be the Flash and a man in all red could also be the Flash, Marvel didn't require alternate worlds at all, and could utilize the concept with greater freedom and flexibility, creating parallel Earths with wildly divergent histories and unique casts of characters and, most importantly, no narrative limits.

The two paragraphs above are intended to provide some context for a couple of salient points. First, DC Comics eventually made as much creative use of parallel earths as Marvel did, but the end result was an unwieldy network of interconnected ongoing stories that wove back and forth across universes in complicated patterns that even die-hard fans had trouble following. This led DC to publish a maxi-series in 1985 with the grandiose and not entirely hyperbolic title CRISIS ON INFINITE EARTHS. The plotline - involving a malevolent god-like creature, anti-matter, and time travel - literally erased the parallel Earths from existence and rewrote history, thus simplifying and streamlining DC's continuity going forward. In the 80's, most comics were either regular series intended to continue indefinitely, or mini-series intended to run no more than four or six issues to tell a complete story. COIE required twelve issues, hence the newly coined maxi-series label. In retrospect, it was a massively important year in DC's publishing history, and despite numerous imperfections in the execution I am a fairly big fan of it. But during the span it was published, I wasn't reading it in real time. I encountered the odd issue here or there, and I got the idea it was a watershed story that would have major after-effects, but DC was still the other comics company, readable but not as important as Marvel.

Marvel published a maxi-series of its own a year before COIE, an offering entitled MARVEL SUPER-HEROES SECRET WARS. My fond nostalgia for that storyline is limited to my memories of perusing certain issues in my fourth-grade classroom, when we would have rained-out recess indoors. I didn't collect any issues of SECRET WARS at the time because I had been unaware of its existence for the first few months it was being published. And even at the tender age of 9 I was enough of an obsessive completist that if I couldn't have every issue of the limited set of twelve (again, at this time it was all but impossible to find old issues of a comic book series once they had been replaced on the newsstand with newer ones) I didn't want any. Reading someone else's copies was enough for me. And missing the first few issues was no hardship either, because it was as dumbed down as a mega-event could possibly be: good guys and bad guys punched each other for a year on an artificial planet designed to be their ultimate battleground.

But after SECRET WARS, and after CRISIS ON INFINITE EARTHS, there would be other maxi-series, and one in particular would represent a best-of-breed approach: an intelligent story unlike any being told in the monthly status-quo-compliant dustups, published by Marvel but set in another corner of the multiverse than the homeworld of Spider-Man and the Hulk. The Squadron Supreme would get their own twelve-issue limited series starting in the summer of 1985, and I would happen upon its inaugural issue and seize the opportunity to finally collect a complete run from start to finish. Little did I know I would also have my mind thoroughly blown, as I will explain next post.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Saturday Grab Bag, Mostly Work Stuff

Really, this is mostly the Intersection of Work and Christmas grab bag. Let's dive right in, shall we?

Every year my government boss gives out a small gift to everyone in the department, civilians and contractors alike. It's usually some Christmas candy and a small personalized item; one year, notepads, another year, travel coffee mugs. This year the formula was the same, and the vaguely work-related swag awaiting me this past Monday morning was a mousepad. I haven't had a mousepad at work for quite a while, so it's certainly appreciated, but in addition to my name screenprinted across the top the mousepad features a large color photo of a tropical beach, with a sapphire sky and a few fluffy clouds above turquoise water and a couple of lazy palm trees.

I know there's two ways to think about such a visual in the gray cube farm context. One is that it's a nice contrast that can provide a little mini mental vacation from the office monotony. The other is that it's a taunting, tortuous reminder that there are places I would rather be than stuck at a desk (earning my living, blah blah blah) with every sightline to a window blocked by half-walls. I know which of those two options was my boss's intent, but that doesn't really change which of those is my default perspective.

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On Tuesday morning I entered the lobby of my office building and got on the elevator and stood in the back corner with a steadily mounting sense of rage as people kept getting on. Not that I had been at the front of a large group waiting for the doors to open, but after I got on with a others, one more person hurried, held the doors open, and got on. And then another straggler hurried on. And then another. The building has six elevators (technically eight, but one is a freight elevator and one only goes down to the parking garage, not up to the office suites) and if I see an elevator with its doors standing open and several people already aboard, I always opt to wait for the next one. And it has never not infuriated me that other people don't do this.

So by the time the last person boarded and the doors closed, they did so with a loud buzzer going off. I was holding my breath waiting for someone to say "Uh-oh, what does that noise mean?" because I was not entirely confident in my ability to restrain myself from answering in a snarl, "It means the elevator was in the lobby too long because some people can't wait ten extra freaking seconds for the next one." Nobody said anything, but I may have closed my eyes to steady my nerves nonetheless. And then, after a few stops on the middle floors had emptied out the car somewhat, a woman on the opposite side of the elevator said to me, "Are you awake yet?" Of course it was none other than the boss of all bosses, who is normally over at the Pentagon on Tuesdays but had apparently come to our side of town for the agency Christmas party that afternoon. Needless to say I was grateful that I had not thrown a fit at strangers on the elevator after all, given that it would have been in front of the deputy assistant secretary. Small favors and all that.

+++

So the Christmas party itself was actually pretty pleasant. My big fear, which I did not want to tempt fate by even voicing ahead of the event, was that I would find myself stuck at a table with my co-worker Ms. Nonsense and that I would spend the whole time developing cracks in my molars from biting back variations on "shut up" for a couple hours. Really the key to any large gathering, be it a work function or a large wedding reception or whatever, is managing to sit at one of the cool tables. And in that I was successful, both in avoiding Ms. Nonsense and attaching myself to some of the more companionable people in the office, including my old friend and converted-storage-area-mate Mr. Gregarious (who, in small doses, is really pretty engaging). So the back-and-forth was neither boneheaded nor actively distressing, and at one point someone brought up Awkward Family Christmas Photos and passed around a smartphone to show some of the more hilarious entries. I even won a decent bottle of wine by acing one of the trivia challenges based on identifying lyrics to Christmas carols and standards. Note: lots of people confuse "Here Comes Santa Claus" with "Santa Claus is Coming to Town", and even more confuse "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree" with "Jingle Bell Rock".

Not to pile on my most socially clueless colleague, but the morning of the party she was asking people whether or not they were planning on going, and someone must have indicated that they didn't really see the point, and she insisted, "But there's an open bar!" This caused a minor uproar, as most things that people know are not true but very much wish could be true tend to do. Finally everyone was able to figure out that Ms. Nonsense just doesn't really get what the term "open bar" means, i.e. she thinks it simply means that a cash bar is open for business, whereas EVERYONE ELSE IN THE WORLD knows it means free booze. (For what it's worth, there was a cash bar last year but there was no bar of any kind this year, but as far as I know Ms. Nonsense's attempts to pressure people into coming based on her unfounded assumption that this year's party, despite being at a different venue, would be exactly like last year's, all came to naught.)

At one point during the yankee swap portion of the party Ms. Nonsense turned up her obnoxiousness to 11, and one of my co-workers sitting next to me leaned over and sighed, "Do you think she was an only child?" It was a nice moment of holiday cheer, realizing that I'm not the only one who finds her hard to take.

+++

So apparently work and Christmas really don't mix because the whole scene just makes me uncharitably cranky. But, only two more work days left this whole year, and then I'm giving myself a week off between Christmas and New Years! I should be able to make it through a couple more shifts without strangling someone with tinsel. Here's hoping, anyway!

Friday, December 20, 2013

In praise of minor deities

People often wonder why December is called that, when words like "decimal" refer to our base 10 system and yet December is plainly the twelfth month of the year. The answer of course is that the month is named for Decembrion, the ancient Roman god of Top Ten Lists. Clearly, the last lunar cycle of the calendar is when people, since time immemorial, have trotted out their retrospective rankings of things which occurred in the preceding year, usually in sets of ten which is a nice round number. Hence, December. (duh.)

Far be it for me to break from this mythic tradition! Although I will bend it slightly, by presenting a list of ten superlatives pulled from varying categories, with little to no ranking of apples and oranges. Also, please note that as always I am running behind and in catch-up mode, so while a few of these were technically released in the previous 12 months, many more of them were not (and occasionally that is kind of the point). But they are all things which I encountered for the first time this year. And finally, in the interest of keeping this post from going on too insanely long (and saving some content in reserve for next week, when Christmas vacation will likely keep my blogging at a minimum) I will break things up and present the conclusion one week from today.

Herewith, in arbitrary order, are (the first six of) my own personal Top Ten Points of Pop Culture for 2013.

1. Best Non-Fiction Book I read: Marvel Comics The Untold Story by Sean Howe (Runner Up: Damn Yankees by various)

Clearly, seeing as I was inspired to write not just one review but a series of posts in response to Sean Howe's chronicle of the dominant American superhero-publishing force in my lifetime, the book impacted me a great deal. It is essentially required reading for anyone who has progressed beyond casual interest in the Marvel Universe, especially those who appreciate the life/art imitations arising from decades of young, hungry creative types collaborating on a grandiose fictional construct custom-tailored to accommodate outsize imaginations, which by the way was always trying to make enough money to remain viable. It's extremely insider interest stuff, but to those with an affinity for the comics in question it's a fascinating document.

Damn Yankees narrowly edges out The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson. (The only other non-fiction books I read this year were Hallucinations by Oliver Sachs and Super Graphic by Tim Leong, both just kind of OK.) Both Damn Yankees and Devil in the White City are great, but Larson's work is weighed down by his own stylistic tics, such as trying to evoke thematic narrative threads from historical facts that don't necessarily support them. And Damn Yankees pulls ahead in sheer readability because it brings together so many different voices meditating on the 27-time world champs, a subject extremely near and dear to my heart.

2. Best Novel I read: The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach (Runner Up: The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wacker)

I love books about baseball, especially the players' perspective, since I never played the game myself and the on-field mindset is terra incognita for me. I also love books about college English departments and the meanings of classics like Moby Dick, since I very much immersed myself in that world and know and love it still. The Art of Fielding brought all that and more together marvelously.

I spent a good chunk of this past year re-reading the first four books of George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire, so that I could read for the first time the fifth book, A Dance with Dragons (which was pretty good, notwithstanding the unavoidable baggage of being a middle chapter in a saga which I am eager to reach its end). But I did manage to fit in another ten or so novels, and the other stand-out besides Art of Fielding was The Golem and the Jinni. It's simultaneously a period piece about the immigrant experience in early twentieth century New York City (albeit focusing on Jewish and Syrian communities, rather than the old standby Irish and Italian stereotypes) and a fable about two fantastical creatures trying to determine whether or not they can pass as human, and whether or not that's an aspiration worth wanting.

3. Best Comics I read: Dial H by China Mieville (Runner Up: Hack/Slash by Tim Seeley)

I wasn't a big fan of DC Comics' decision a couple years ago to completely reboot their entire superhero universe, but some good things have come out of it. Specifically, some projects given to competent and independent-minded creators managed to succeed largely because they were set on the fringe of the New 52, rather than being deeply embedded in the all-new-but-totally-recycled world. Dial H is one of those peripheral titles, concerning an everyman who discovers a strange device which transforms him into a different superhero every time he uses it, each larger-than-life identity more bizarre than the last. It's a concept that can only really work after the tropes of superhero comics have been well-established and can be deconstructed at will, and the fact that rather than being written by a DC stalwart it was handed to novelist China Mieville means it can and does go in truly mad directions. (So of course it was cancelled this past summer, but I still have a second volume of collected issues I can look forward to, at least.)

During SPOOKTOBERFEST of this year I sampled a horror-comedy comic called Hack/Slash by Tim Seeley. I had intended to blog about it at some point but I never did, largely because I didn't have a ton to say about it. I enjoyed reading it, mostly for the way it both celebrated and acknowledged the absurdity of horror movies, hitting a lot of the same points about the breed that I have in various posts round these parts. But looking back I have to admit it was one of my favorites and I'm already eagerly anticipating incorporating another volume of it into next year's Halloween-themed entertainments.

4. Best Classic Movie I (finally) saw: Sunset Blvd (Runner Up: Vertigo)

So I gushed about this movie back in June and I stand by that initial reaction 100%. It was the rarest of all cases, an enshrined legend which actually lives up to the hype. I should probably own it; I would sit down and watch it again in a heartbeat.

(You might have noticed, if you've let your eye linger on the shiny new banner I put together for the blog, that Sunset Blvd. and Seven Samurai are the only two images taken from earlier than 1980 to make the collage. Dead giveaway there, really.)

I've had almost the entire year to re-evaluate my take on Vertigo, but I'm confident that it holds up as well. I didn't fall in love with Hitchcock's highly regarded tour de force the way I did with Wilder's masterpiece, but I certainly was duly impressed by it. That probably says more about me than either of the two movies in question: one is mainly about a writer, the other about a cop-turned-private-investigator, and I am a sucker for creative-arts protagonists.

5. Best New Movie I saw in the theater: Gravity (Runner Up: Iron Man 3)

Not terribly hard to narrow down the choices in this category. I went to the theater exactly three times this year. Once was to see Man of Steel, which I did not care for. (Now let us never speak of it again. Until the sequel.) Of the other two excursions, Gravity was far and away the highlight experience, both in terms of the venue (the incomparable Alamo Drafthouse) and the film itself. As other year-end lists have been coming out this season I've seen a fair amount of backlash for the film, criticisms that the script is a thin justification for what's basically a glorified showing off of cinematographic technique and immersive special effects. Don't believe it.

So that leaves my only other cineplex outing, Iron Man 3, as the runner up. Fair enough, really. It was a solid popcorn flick, inevitably a bit of a let-down after The Avengers (though impressively dedicated to dealing with narrative consequences from that epic) but with a Robert Downey Jr. as charming as ever and even Gwyneth Paltrow rendered sympathetic.

(Incidentally, my wife and I are planning on heading to the Alamo again this weekend to see The Desolation of Smaug, which might have edged out Iron Man 3, but timing is everything. But I'm excited to have managed four theater trips in a single year!)

6. Best Trashy Movie I saw: Machete (Runner Up: Attack the Block)

In addition to sitting in darkened auditoriums in front of the big screen, I watched over 50 movies this year on DVD or my Kindle. And while the vast majority of those were part of the overall effort to chip away at the mountain of 1001 Films I've never seen (but Must!), several of them were purely self-indulgent. Which is coincidentally a good word for describing Robert Rodriguez's Machete, which was the most gratuitous, exploitative, loud and violent flick I've caught in a long time. It also happened to be one of the most fun, exhilarating movie experiences in a while, too. Machete manages to walk that fine line between savagely parodying the excesses of a genre and brilliantly embracing and embodying those over-the-top elements. It's tempting to call it a turn-your-brain-off movie, except that's not right at all, because the movie is able to engage a certain mindset on multiple levels. It's very smart about just how stupid it chooses to be.

Attack the Block isn't as deliriously trashy, but it's still easy to dismiss as yet another disposable sci-fi matinee. That would do the film a genuine disservice, though. It puts a compelling twist on the old alien invasion monster movie template by having the creatures first show up not in the vicinity of a military installation or a scientific research outpost but in the London equivalent of the projects, thus making the default heroes a bunch of punks and hooligans. And from that premise it spins a legitimately clever script punctuated by visceral action sequences and underscored by social commentary. Another one I should probably own, and make an annual tradition of watching on Bonfire Night or something.

NEXT FRIDAY: The senses-shattering conclusion!

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Home for the holidays

This year, we seem to have (so far) circumvented a lot of the traditional Christmas traumas associated with our pets. Because the baby is crawling, climbing and grabbing like mad, we bought a small tabletop tree rather than a full-sized floor-based one, and as a side benefit to being out of the nine-month-old's reach, it's also out of reach of the cats and dogs. It hasn't been toppled over once! (Knock on tannenbaum) Also, as of yet no one has sent us foodstuffs in the mail or plied us with leftovers at a party, so there haven't been any latenight discoveries of shredded red cellophane and cookie crumbs or the like. (The other day, my wife made lunch to take to work and forgot it at home and the dogs made short work of it, but that's not really a seasonal thing, it could happen any time of year.)

So there hasn't been much cause to focus on the animals hereabouts lately, and in fact I had been more or less avoiding the topic for a few months, because one of our cats had run away. Sort of. Our felines in residence, as of this year, have included one very old female (whom my wife has had for longer than she and I have been romantically involved) and a pair of male and female littermates who were stray kittens not terribly long ago. The male quickly made it abundantly clear he wished to be an indoor/outdoor cat, and established a very reliable pattern of gallivanting about the neighborhood most of the time (so long as the weather was nice) and regularly checking in at home for mealtimes. His (half-)sister, on the other hand, was incredibly skittish and generally spent most of her time hiding in the basement or behind furniture. Eventually she would come into view in the main living areas as long as only the immediate family was home, but strangers frightened her back to her safe spaces. The elder cat, for what it's worth, split the difference between the two: sometimes she would slip outside for some fresh air, but she could go days on end lounging around the house, as well. (Needless to say she was also unafraid of/unimpressed by anything.)

And then one day in October or so we suddenly realized we hadn't seen the younger female in a day or so, not even at feeding times (which, granted, can be chaotic around our house for the two-legged residents alone) and it slowly dawned on us that the cat had gotten out of the house. And this was confirmed some days later with a sighting of her on the front lawn late at night, and a few days after that when, as I was walking the dogs down our street, she crossed my path and then disappeared down the creekbed. In the beginning my wife and I told ourselves that she must be mortally terrified to be out and about and she would come home soon enough, particularly when she started to get good and hungry. But weeks stretched into months and she never came scratching at the door. My wife had the idea to set out small animal traps, but we only succeeded in capturing the two cats who hadn't run away (plus one raccoon!). And every time we were about ready to give up the kitty as so much coyote chow, she would flit ninja-like through the yard and prove she was still with us, or at least in our general vicinity.

Bless my wife's animal-loving heart, she grew extremely distraught about our poor lost skitty-kat, but she never completely lost faith. She repaired the damage to the cage-trap that the raccoon had wreaked, and set it out one more time a week or so ago, in a new spot. And lo and behold, it finally worked as intended, and our wayward cat tripped the spring and then waited patiently for someone to come and let her out.

She was skinnier than we remembered, but otherwise unharmed. My wife was going to set up a little cat recovery suite in my dork room in the basement for as long as it took the cat to readjust to living inside (and around the noises of other cats, dogs, small children, &c.) but the cat got out of the room after just a day or so and seemed perfectly content to have the run of the house. She hasn't tried to run out through any open doors, either, which I point out merely to underline the fact that I apparently understand doodly-squat about animals. When the cat first disappeared I assured my wife that she'd be back very soon, as soon as she calmed down and missed her twice-daily feedings. I was wrong about that. Then, as the absence continued, I consoled my wife that there was nothing we could have done differently, that clearly the cat did not want to live with us, despite our best efforts to create an accommodating living situation for her. She had been a wild kitten and clearly preferred living in the (suburban) wild. I was wrong about that too, apparently, as she seems content to be under our roof once again.

And that's the important thing, really. My wife sighed wistfully more than a few times that all she really wanted for Christmas was for our lost kitty to come home, and miraculously enough, she got exactly what she wanted. Clearly that's an indicator that for all the sleep destroyed by fussy babies and patience wrecked by tantrum-y two-year-olds and stress created by the turbulence of a child starting kindergarten, the only thing really worth wishing for is the recovery of a runaway pet. Life is pretty good.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Subjective reality (Heavenly Creatures)

It's my final 1001 Movies Blog Club post for the year, taking a look at Peter Jackson's Heavenly Creatures. A somewhat fitting choice for this holiday season, if we take into account (as I always do!) the ancient roots in Saturnalia and its attendant carnival atmosphere and overturning of social norms. Certain plot details of Heavenly Creatures fit that theme, but in a broader sense the entire movie is a reversal of something I've obsessed over in the past. I'm still a defender of my general theory that storytellers love stories about stories and storytellers, but Peter Jackson offers something of a sobering counterpoint to that notion in this movie. Instead of praising the transformative and redemptive powers of escapism, Heavenly Creatures is a disturbing cautionary tale about overindulging in personal fantasies.

Based on a true story, Heavenly Creatures centers on two teenage girls living in Christchurch, NZ in the early 1950's. Pauline and Juliet are not merely adolescents; they are deep in the turbulent throes of adolescence. There's an inherent challenge in making teenagers point-of-view characters for a story, since they invariably emerge as unreliable narrators. To a certain extent, that's the point of Heavenly Creatures, since it chronicles the development and deepening of the girls' attachment to one another to the exclusion of almost everything else, climaxing in the horrific murder of Pauline's mother at both girls' hands. Pauline and Juliet gradually, increasingly substitute the world they perceive around them with their own interior reveries, until it seems to them obvious and unavoidable that a woman must die because she is a mere obstacle to the girls' continued happiness in one another. To try to distill the causes of a brutal matricide into a single word leads to convenient labels like "crazy" or "evil", but Heavenly Creatures attempts to lay out a more nuanced explanation. It does not attempt to deflect or redirect the blame for the crime from the girls to their parents (or, shudder, "society") but merely to provide a context that makes the act less of an utter anomaly.

It's very telling that the first meeting between Pauline and Juliet happens in two stages. Juliet arrives at Pauline's school and interrupts French class. Juliet has no reason to notice Pauline, but Pauline is mesmerized by Juliet as she proceeds from introducing herself straight to correcting the teacher. Later, Pauline and Juliet are paired together for a life drawing assignment in art class, which gives Pauline the opportunity to tell Juliet she's brilliant. The two different classroom settings present recurring motifs which inform most of Juliet and Pauline's relationship, and the film as a whole. In French class, the teacher informs Juliet that the students use French names, and Juliet immediately re-christens herself Antoinette. We find out later that Pauline's family tends to call her by her middle name, Yvonne. Pauline and Juliet have dangerously slippery senses of identity, and are constantly renaming themselves or each other, assuming the fictional personae of Charles and Deborah in letters, and son. Meanwhile in art class, Juliet ignores the assignment to draw Pauline and instead draws Saint George slaying the dragon, which presages the girls' flights into pure fantasy worlds of knights and castles (and, not least, slayings).

The best part of the movie, for my money, is the ongoing build-up of the girls' imaginary kingdom of Borovnia. The girls quickly become so consumed by their shared creation that they devote time and intense energy to documenting fictional royal family trees and sculpting plasticine models of the nobles. Eventually, the film begins to show longer and longer daydream sequences in which the girls interact with Borovnians, now life-sized and capable of independent movement and speech, but still formed entirely of monochrome, decidedly non-fleshy substance. From a practical effects standpoint, this was achieved by dressing up extras in bulky latex bodysuits, but within the narrative it's a perfect visual embodiment of a fantasy taking on a life of its own, simultaneously all-encompassing and yet affectless and hollow. From the limited, uninformed perspective of a fourteen or fifteen year old child, it's something more magnificent than conventional everyday life, while to the (presumably) adult audience, it's blatantly off-model and off-putting. It's all puppets and dolls, and nobody likes those.

It's easy to say now that Peter Jackson, he of the triumphant realization of a physically inhabitable Middle Earth on film, was an obvious choice to create the uncanny Borovnia sequences. It's equally easy to say that Kate Winslet was tailor-made for the part of the luminous Juliet, drawing in Melanie Lynskey's Pauline like a moth to a flame. So it's slightly amazing to realize that Heavenly Creatures was made in 1994, that it was Kate Winslet's major motion picture debut and was only the fourth film Jackson directed, after such horror fare as Bad Taste and Dead Alive (or Braindead as it was known down under). Everybody has to start somewhere, and Heavenly Creatures turned out to be a fairly auspicious beginning.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Mandatory merriment

The second office holiday party is today, and should be getting started right around the time this post goes up. For what it's worth, the previous party barely qualified as such, and was more of a large lunch provided in the office, with a little bit of holiday-themed decoration thrown up in the conference rooms. On the one hand I was spared the stiff socializing, but on the other hand it seemed strangely ... unnecessary? But as a bonus, there were copious leftovers for lunch the next day, so I absolutely got my money's worth. (Also, no major security violations. I'm sure you are all breathing a sigh of relief.)

Speaking of returns on investment, I have already paid out-of-pocket for today's lunch as well, and it is was a steeper price than last week's potluck but it's a sit-down at a nearby hotel, so that should balance out. More to the point, I'll be danged if I'm going to sit around the cube farm when I could blow off half the day, so that's worth a few extra bucks to me.

But only to me, you know? At the all-hands meeting back in November they reminded everyone about the holiday party and someone actually asked if spouses were invited. "Invited" of course is the wrong word; if I invite you over to my house for dinner, I don't expect you to cover the cost of your meal by forking over cash. So I suppose he meant "if spouses were allowed". To which the answer was, I guess? Seriously, the leadership kind of hemmed and hawed about it, saying that it has traditionally (always) been employees only, not least because it's in the middle of a workday. But they also granted that if someone's spouse were free that day, and really wanted to come, including paying for the meal, then it would be fine.

The unspoken implication, of course, was "What the hell is wrong with you?" Why would anyone go out of their way to attend a low-end banquet luncheon on a Tuesday which only justifies its existence within the sphere of the workplace by being slightly less depressing than doing nothing at all for Christmas at said workplace? Especially why would anyone do so when it's not their workplace? It's not even technically mandatory for us employees (my sardonic post-title notwithstanding), and people are allowed to say that it's not worth the admission price to shuffle over to a basement ballroom for rubber chicken and sparkling cider, and there are no repercussions for them.

I even tried thinking it through with an overabundance of benefit-of-the-doubt, as in maybe the thought of having lunch together on a weekday strikes this couple as a rare treat, maybe the husband always without fail works through lunch at his desk and on this one day a year when he's going to take a long lunch at a set time and could theoretically have his wife meet him there, they'd be fools not to make the most of it. But how much of a treat would it be for the two of them to be squeezed in with 8 other people around the table, almost all of whom will probably be compulsively talking shop the whole time? Forget being worth the cost outlay or not, is it worth doing at all?

Office Christmas parties to me are just one of those weird outgrowths of the nature of life in the Big Gray. They're inessential, but as I granted above, they're better than nothing. I don't hate them, they just occupy a very small place in my overall holiday experience every year. Maybe that's just me.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Werner and me (Burden of Dreams)

Yep, back to the salt mines, last full five-day work week for a while, blah blah blah. I know what time it really is, time to get back to DOXEMBER!

Our next installment of "documentaries about movies which may or may not be on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list" is Burden of Dreams, which concerns the making of Werner Herzog's Fitzcarraldo. (You may recall this was the very first movie I selected for the rest of the 1001 Movies Blog Club to watch when I was given the chance to do so.) Burden of Dreams makes for an interesting companion piece to Hearts of Darkness, as it happens. Both are about shooting films on location in untamed places, and both productions were besieged by numerous problems and setbacks. Eerily similar problems and setbacks, truth be told. Apocalypse Now saw Coppola replace Harvey Keitel with Martin Sheen as THATGUY, and Martin Sheen later suffered a heart attack which interrupted filming for a time. Fitzcarraldo was originally to star Jason Robards, but he was felled by severe amoebic dysentery, interrupting filming, and was then replaced by Klaus Kinski. Weather played an enormous factor in both productions as well: too much rain destroyed many of the sets for Apocalypse Now, whereas the longest recorded dry spell made it impossible to move Fitzcarraldo's steamship off a river sandbar for months on end.

The major difference, arguably, is that Apocalypse Now is widely regarded as a classic and a masterpiece, while Fitzcarraldo is a quirky obscurity. It's a provocative reminder that single-minded, near-fanatical dedication to completing an artistic endeavor sometimes leads to something enduring and sometimes leads to something much more ephemeral.

The main reason to watch the documentary, beyond a nominal interest in how certain elements of Fitzcarraldo came together, especially the centerpiece steamship-over-the-mountain sequence, is the opportunity to see Herzog himself address the camera and hold forth on his thoughts on the movie and the artistic process in general. Of course, Herzog's viewpoint is omnipresent throughout his films, and you could argue that in an abstract but very real way he's constantly addressing the camera whenever it's rolling. But there's something valuable in the more immediate experience of the director articulating ideas in spoken words. Sometimes it's a bit unsettling, but always interesting.

I mentioned back when I reviewed Fitzcarraldo that my wife and I had seen Herzog's Grizzly Man together. That was years and years ago, but to this day we still quote that documentary at one another. Every once in a while it's the subject of the doc, Tim Treadwell, whom we quote, but far more often it's the voiceover by Herzog himself. (The go-to bit is the point at which Herzog, in refutation of Treadwell's claim to have looked into the eyes and souls of wild grizzly bears and seen some kind of empathy, meets the beasts' gaze himself and his disembodied Teutonic voice states definitively "I see no compassion.") And there's so much more of Herzog in Burden of Dreams. In Grizzly Man, he knew he wasn't the subject and he should weigh in sparingly, but in Burden of Dreams he accepts that he is the subject, and holds very little back.

Some of the full disclosure made by Herzog is illuminating. I remember being put off by what struck me as too much undifferentiated footage of the rainforest in Fitzcarraldo, far more than was necessary to evoke the time and place of the story. But Herzog makes it clear in Burden of Dreams that he is utterly fascinated by the profuse and chaotic riot of life in the river basins, which explains why he literally could not turn the camera away from it. And some of the revelations are distressing, such as a conversation between Herzog and a mechanical engineer who was brought on to achieve the practical effect of hauling the ship up the 40% grade of a muddy ridge. The engineer wanted to regrade the slope to 20%, and Herzog refused because he feared losing the central metaphor he was trying to express in the film. The engineer then quit because he didn't want to be responsible for a project with a very high chance of killing people if something went wrong. (Herzog hired different engineers, and thankfully no one died.)

It's always going to be somewhat disorienting to peer behind the curtain at how the magic is made. But next up for DOXEMBER I'll be checking out a feature about the making of a movie where the magic never managed to come together after all, so stay tuned for that!

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Marvel Comics: My Untold Story (4) - Rivalry

The objective differences between Marvel Comics and DC, in terms of style and subject matter, in and of themselves would probably have been enough to make me align with the former as a means of identification and self-expression. I read comics from both companies (in fact I read whatever I could get my hands on) but would not have hesitated to label myself more of a Marvel fan; I always ended up liking those issues more. Not to digress too much, but part of this was likely due to the relative ages of the two publishers and their respective fictional universes. Marvel had twenty-four years of history, which I had been helpfully provided with numerous guidebooks for (as my previous posts have attested), and which had been intended from day one to be cohesive and cumulative. DC was nearing fifty years of lore which had been forcibly unified as it gradually went along, including numerous reinventions. Both companies had backstory from before my time, but picking up a random Marvel comic in the early '80's was a completely different experience from picking up a random DC comic. On the one hand, the Marvel characters always seemed to be more recognizable, because their classic formula hadn't been messed with too much; there was no need, the ideas were all still (just barely) fresh enough to resist radical redesigns. Whereas DC comics were trying new things all the time in an attempt to recapture their former glory, while at the same time Saturday morning cartoon versions were streamlined and movie versions hearkened back to decades-old origin stories, so getting a definitive handle on Superman was tricky (did he work as a reporter at a newspaper (like in the movies)? or as a television journalist (comics)? or just hang around the Hall of Justice all day waiting for the Trouble Alert to go off (cartoons)?). And on the paradoxical other hand, despite the superficial changes DC characters never seemed to grow and evolve, whereas Marvel characters did. I might pick up an issue of The Defenders and find it referring to some earlier issue I had never read, but I found it strangely reassuring that the whole long tapestry of story would fit together if I ever tracked down those previous installments. And for the most part, those continuity nods added some depth of flavor but were not essential to comprehending the story at hand. Contrast that with DC, where I might remember some old adventure of Batman's which, it turns out, never really happened and therefore has no bearing on the story I had just plucked off the spinner rack. DC had a tendency to let older stories drift away into irrelevance, because their characters never aged and therefore it made no sense for a perpetually 36-year-old Superman or Batman in the early 1980's to have any memories going back as far as World War II, despite printed evidence to the contrary. Missing some of the intricacies of Marvel's finely tuned machine bothered me far less than grappling with DC's kludgy devices. And judging from the waning of DC's fortunes as Marvel's star was on the rise, lots of other people felt similarly.

That was thirty years ago, and Marvel has since struggled with a lot of the same weighty baggage as DC in the intervening time, but in the halcyon days of my childhood the distinction was clear. Marvel comics spoke my language and hooked me in and made sense to me, whereas despite loving certain characters of DC's (Green Lantern always never far from my heart) I couldn't invest myself in the current comics they were putting out at the time.

Yet there was another factor that emerged early on, one which infiltrated countless aspects of my young life, with comics fandom only one instance among many: the ongoing love/hate relationship between myself and my younger brother.

It's difficult now, in retrospect, to draw a straight line connecting cause to effect to follow-on effect, and to a large extent the sequence probably doesn't matter. By the time I was 10 and my Little Bro was 7, we were both actively trying to differentiate ourselves from one another. So it might have been the case that he was drawn to DC Comics on their own merits, which only made me double down on my devotion to Marvel as an act of separation of our interests. On the other hand, it may have been that a slight but noticeable preference for marvel Comics on my part pushed my brother to embrace their Distinguished Competition (as Stan Lee oft referred to DC) as his own necessary fraternal rebellion. Whichever came first, the end result was the same, a mutually reinforcing cycle of staking out claims to our preferred superhero territories and then escalating to an ongoing battle for supremacy. We both fervently believed that Marvel and DC would duke it out in the hearts and minds of their respective fans, and eventually only one would be left standing. Little Bro and I both had a vested interest in picking the right side. We argued the points endlessly. Granted, my approach was generally to point out concrete examples as to why Marvel comics were inherently, objectively superior, whereas my brother would dig in his heels that he liked what he liked and he thought what I liked was stupid, but the argument sustained itself all the same.

Still, I can remember distinctly riding in the back of our family station wagon, on the infamous tailgunner bench, reading a comic book and getting to the end and uncontrollably yelping for Little Bro to take a look at the unassuming house ad that had been placed on the letters page. A little while ago I went through the comics collection I have tucked in the back of a closet in the basement, and I was able to find and scan the ad:

Well, there you go. Batman and Green Lantern and Superman and Wonder Woman and even Hawkman (Little Bro was a particular fan of his) were going to become Marvel characters. I had heard rumblings and implications (though I do not in any way recall how a ten year old picke dup on industry rumors back then in the pre-interwebs primordium) that Marvel was going to assume control of some of DC's characters, because Marvel was strong and getting stronger and DC was weak and losing its grip. And here was proof that such was in fact the case. My side had won the war and to the victors the spoils, including the right to rename the Justice League as the Squadron Supreme, apparently.

As in most cases of sibling rivalry, I expected my brother to meekly admit defeat, but he in turn did no such thing, instead brooding (as only a 7-year-old can brood) that it either wasn't going to happen or didn't matter anyway.

It all, of course, turned out to be an elaborate bait and switch. Sean Howe's Untold Story assures me that (in this case, at least) I am not crazy and my memory is not entirely faulty; there were, in fact, non-trivial inquiries made into the possibility of Marvel Comics acquiring licensing rights to DC characters up to and including Superman and Batman, although nothing ever came to fruition. But the Squadron Supreme had nothing to do with any of those backroom inter-publisher brokerings, had in fact always been a Marvel property, albeit a none-too-subtle homage to the Distinguished Competition. But misleading ad campaign or no, their turn in the spotlight ended up being one of my favorite comics of all time, which prompted me to seek out and learn more about their history, both within the fictional universe and in the real world of publishing. I will get into that more next post.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Saturday Grab Bag of Minor Obsessions

As a bit of belated post-script to my review of Seconds from earlier this week, I should probably have offered the following in full disclosure: when I was in college some of the girls I hung out with got me addicted to Days of Our Lives, which at the time (the early-to-mid 90's) featured the redoubtable Frances Reid front and center as saintly matriarch Alice Horton. Ms. Reid made an indelible impression on me as the quintessential white-haired grandma type; I liked the old broad. So strong was said impression that when I watched seconds and Frances Reid appeared on-screen as Mrs. Emily Hamilton, despite the movie being shot in black and white approximately thirty years before my Days of Our Lives habit began, I immediately said to myself, "Why, hello, Alice!" At any rate, I admit I may have been influenced in my assessment of the overall importance of Mrs. Hamilton's monologue by my fondness for Ms. Reid. And now you know.

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Jason Segel To Play David Foster Wallace

Huh.

I like Segel a lot, and my tragic mancrush on DFW is well-documented. I am somewhere between cautiously optimistic and fully geeked on this one.

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So how about that Mega Millions jackpot that nobody won last night? I bought 5 tickets, which increases the chances of winning negligibly compared to buying one ticket, but then again, 5 dollars versus 1 dollar is kind of negligible as well. I overheard the clerk at the 7-11 saying that some people had come in that day and bought $100 worth of tickets, and I can only hope those people were representing office pools or something where every individual only had to kick in 5 bucks. Otherwise that old saw about the tax on people bad at math would have to be invoked.

I actually saw a story online yesterday about how they recently (right around the time the current jackpot started building, said growth due to nobody was winning) changed the structure of the Mega Millions drawing. Used to be you (or the machine program) picked five numbers between 1 and 56, plus a Megaball number between 1 and 46, and you had to match all six to win the grand prize. But this fall they expanded the field of numbers for the first five up to 75, while at the same time limiting the Megaball possibilities to 15. It basically raises the odds of winning from astronomical to hyperastronomical.

On the one hand, I'm impressed by this maneuver by the gaming commission. By making it far less likely that anyone wins the top prize in any given week, it makes it that much more likely that jackpots will accumulate and reach the critical mass where people go insane and buy more tickets, or people who don't normally play decide this time they will, and so on. More revenue, more success, &c. &c. Again, not really weighing in on whether this is a good thing, or one of society's more nefarious state-sponsored evils, but from a pure game theory standpoint (or my layman's understanding thereof) it's gold.

And on the other hand, you do win one crisp US dollar if you happen to match the Megaball alone, and by reducing that field it becomes vastly more likely that those lower-level winnings will be more frequent. Which in turn also makes the game more appealing, as the breakeven outcome will be more common. Here's the problem for me, though: I almost always buy 5 tickets, and let the machine pick all the numbers. Back when there were 56/46 possibilities, that generally meant a pleasingly random assortment of numbers. Now that it's 75/15, it's more likely that via random machine programming I will actually have the same Megaball on two or more lines, which just strikes me as dumb strategy, as opposed to maxing out the chances of catching the Megaball to 1 in 3. I can't think of a way around this other than picking my own random-non-duplicative numbers and filling out the paper and pencil ticket, which seems like an inordinate amount of extra effort. Or possibly (as always) I am overthinking things.

(Incidentally I did win $1 and $1 only in last night's drawing. Cha-ching!)

Friday, December 13, 2013

A little fuzzy on the memes

So we decided this year it made irrefutably more sense to buy a small artificial tabletop Christmas tree and in fact put it up on a table, out of reach of the baby who can now belly crawl across the room and pull himself up on things faster than you can say Donner and Blitzen. To that end, last weekend (or the weekend before? this month is flying by) the whole family trekked on out to Target to avail ourselves of their seasonal accessories. My wife and I had hoped on some level that there would be waiting for us the perfect multicolored fiber optic faux-fir which would allow us to fully embrace the tacky and gaudy with zero pretense of naturalism. But alas, the offerings at Target were fairly unassuming, so we contented ourselves with a humble three-and-a-half footer (which we knew would end up mostly obscured by our collection of Christmas ornaments, anyway).

The kids were bored with the artificial trees but slightly more intrigued by the various ornaments on display in the same section of the store, and since they were behaving themselves relatively well my wife and I indulged them for a while, letting them pick up and examine some of the more durable ornaments and picking them up to get a closer look at fragile ones which needed to stay on their display spindles. At one point my wife and the two older kids spent some time trying to identify all the various species in the woodland creatures assortment.

Let me back up a bit here. My wife and I have in recent years come to accept the fact that certain internet memes are going to elude us. We are not hip young kids anymore. My wife's job does not give her tons of time to idly surf teh interwebs, and while mine more or less does, there are certain limits I set for myself because I feel it's not worth the risk of getting busted for egregious slacking at work. The foremost case in point would be videos; half the time the firewalls on my government network prevent YouTube and other video sites from loading at all, and the other half I'm not comfortable putting on my headphones and making it obvious to my coworkers that I'm watching something. (Why do I have headphones at work at all, then, you ask? Mandatory annual training modules.)

Every once in a great while, my wife and I will make a point of tracking down some video which had gone viral months earlier. So we're not entirely clueless, just perpetually out of date. We have enough social self-awareness to avoid being those people who insist on breathlessly describing to friends and acquaintances about something we've just discovered which was old news last season, as if our exposure to it is the only thing which made the meme matter. The delayed-discovery memes just become part of our little household pop culture sphere.

At any rate, it was only just this month that my wife saw the video for Ylvis's "The Fox" and she was tickled enough by it to bring it to my attention almost immediately. Of course, she asked me to watch it on her phone after dinner, while the kids were still up and about, so they were naturally curious about it and got to watch it as well. We all liked it, for different reasons, and all found ourselves quoting from it or singing it apropos of nothing for the next few days.

Which encompassed the shopping excursion I started off talking about. So when my wife was looking through the animal ornaments and found an arctic fox, she held it up for the little guy and little girl and said, "What the...?" To which the kids replied, in tune and in unison, "FOX SAY!"

And that was intended to be another one of those insular little moments, but it was little loud and in public and sure enough, another woman who was nearby responded to my wife with, "Oh, thanks, Mom, now that's gonna be stuck in my head all night!" She seemed chagrined yet amused, I can only imagine because when she had gotten that earworm dislodged the first time (probably back in October or so) she figured that was the end of it. Sorry, fellow Target patron! We're a little behind the curve in our family.

Incidentally, once we got the artificial tree home and set up and plugged in, the kids looooved it. They danced around in front of it and made up a song entitled "The Christmas Tree Is Here!" Which is pretty catchy, and at least if my wife or I find ourselves singing it as we browse the aisles anywhere, the other holiday shoppers won't get it stuck in their own heads. Probably. You never know.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

The Used Cow Dealer (Seconds)

This week the 1001 Movies Blog Club is pleased to present for your consideration the feature film Seconds, directed by John Frankenheimer. If you happened to notice the Twilight Zone homage in that previous sentence, know that it’s no coincidence. For much of its running time, Seconds reminded me of an episode of Rod Serling’s spooky sci-fi anthology extended to 106 minutes, and featuring a prominent guest star in the person of Rock Hudson.

Seconds is a story about suburban middle-aged malaise, and a radical solution to it: faking one’s own death, undergoing radical plastic surgery, and stepping into a new, fully-formed and empirically superior identity. With that premise, Seconds is able to pose and attempt to answer two different hypotheticals. One, if a man could be handed his dream existence on a silver platter, would it bring him true happiness? And two, if a man could speak to his loved ones anonymously after his own death, and hear how they summed up his life, would it allow him to understand himself?

The latter question is only raised briefly, in a single scene near the end of the movie. The protagonist of the piece, who goes by the name Arthur Hamilton when he is played by John Randolph pre-surgery, and is called Tony Wilson once he is reconstructed as Rock Hudson, goes to visit Mrs. Hamilton, passing himself off as someone who made her husband’s acquaintance just before he died. Mrs. Hamilton reveals that she was always aware that her late husband felt something in his life was lacking, and wanted something which would always be out of reach. The common interpretation (or so it seems to me) is that this is the key point of the movie’s depiction of the protagonist’s quest for fulfillment. Arthur Hamilton conformed to society’s expectations and achieved all the things he was told he was supposed to want: a respectable career, material comfort, a devoted wife and daughter who grew up and married well. He never took the time to understand what wants and needs might naturally arise within him, let alone made any effort to satisfy those yearnings. All of which is fair enough (to a certain point), but to my mind the most crucial point that the “widowed” Mrs. Hamilton makes is this: “We never talked about it.” This is (or should be) the epiphany, an understanding that whether Arthur Hamilton would have been happier as a banker or a tennis pro, as a patriarch with six children and twenty grandkids or as a polyamorous swinger, his biggest mistake was burying such concerns within himself and not sharing them with his wife or anyone else. The most important, most lasting things we can do on this Earth are to forge connections with other human beings, to help one another shoulder the burdens piled on by existence. Everything else is secondary logistics. That is the opportunity that Arthur Hamilton squandered, not a career or a lifestyle but a chance at meaningful bonding. But the realization comes too late, as Mrs. Hamilton conducts a kind of psychological post-mortem at Tony Wilson’s request, finally giving voice to matters which she, too, could never speak aloud in her marriage.

Obviously, the answer to the former question is a resounding “no”. A radical, unearned upgrade of lifestyle, dropping into the chic Malibu bachelor pad of an established artist complete with an attractive, receptive female neighbor who can introduce him to a troupe of Bacchus-worshiping wine-and-free-love enthusiasts does almost nothing to make Tony Wilson any happier than Arthur Hamilton was. For a time while watching the second act of the film, I could not wrap my head around how the Company’s approach made any kind of sense. Wilson’s manservant continually suggests that he throw a cocktail party to get to know his neighbors, which Wilson resists at first but then agrees to, only to have it unravel as a total disaster: he drinks to excess, begins letting slip that he used to have another life, and then ultimately realizes that the various guests at the party are either “reborns” like himself or at the very least employees of the Company. So rather than providing the new life to Tony Wilson, wishing him luck and allowing him to find his own happiness, the Company micromanages him and effectively destroys any chance he might have at making the most of his “rebirth”. Then the nightmarish climax kicks into gear, and I realized: that’s the point. The Company sells the illusory idea of happiness, but of course the last thing the Company wants is for their clients to be happy. The Company wants their clients to be miserable, which in turn will make them hopelessly dependent on the Company, which will allow the Company to manipulate them into participating in the pyramid scheme which allows the Company to perpetuate its own existence, and so on. (In a more cynical mindset, I might very well argue that this is a metaphor for the three C’s of modern American society, capitalism and corporations and consumers, no different today than it was in 1966: all companies sell the American people the dream of happiness, but if everyone suddenly became completely happy with what they had, no one would buy anything, so the whole point of companies is not to give people what they want but to keep them perpetually wanting. But it’s almost Christmas, so let’s not go too far down that particularly dark rabbit hole.)

And the Company is extremely, insidiously good at what it does. By surrounding Wilson with plants loyal to the Company’s agenda, the Company effectively walls him off, which plays directly into my point above about meaningful human connections. So despite a pervasive feeling of being trapped in a surreal quasi-reality (which comes across in several sequences in which the fast intercutting of shots and exaggerated camera angles and other effects really hammer a sense of freak-out disorientation into the audience; heavy-handed, admittedly, but I would argue appropriate to the story and its subject matter), the events of the film make perfect sense, so long as you understand that from the very outset Arthur/Tony is doomed.

The title of this post comes from the slogan of one of the business fronts used by the Company. Arthur Hamilton follows a trail of cryptic clues to penetrate the inner heart of the Company, presumably as a means of testing his determination and suitability as a client. This includes traversing a slaughterhouse where partially butchered animal carcasses hang from hooks as they are shunted along to their final destination. The moment I saw the white coats and delivery van referring to a purveyor of meats as a “Used Cow Dealer” I was profoundly (if morbidly) amused and knew I needed to work it into my review. By the end of the movie, the slaughterhouse is revealed for the foreshadowing that it is, as the Company finds that Hamilton/Wilson’s only remaining usefulness to them is to serve as the manipulated cadaver stand-in for faking a new client’s death.

We are all chattel to the Company, and everything the Old Man says is a lie. We should really know this by now, as the precept that anything which seems too good to be true most likely isn’t true at all is a lesson stories teach us even from childhood. We can try to beat the game, but the house has the advantage and always wins in the long run. Yet it’s in our nature to believe we’re special enough to be the exception to the rule, even if it leads to our downfall. It’s hard to resist temptation, even inherently self-destructive temptation. Seconds illustrates that point, chillingly. But it also offers the tiniest glimpse of a counterpoint, the suggestion that we’re most susceptible to temptation when we’re most alone, and that attaching ourselves to others might help us weather the worst trials. Or so we have to hope.