Wednesday, December 20, 2017

The Feast of Decembrion

It's that time again! Time to dust off the blog (or, y'know, excavate it from beneath a cyber-caul of trillion billion fading electrons ... a measly three posts this year and nothing since September? Yeesh.) and talk about 2017: The Year What Was In Pop Culture Experiences! The Decembrion reference goes back to 2013, so if you want to get a sense of how these things usually go you can check out parts one and two from that year, parts one and two from 2014, or the somewhat condensed versions from 2015 and 2016.

Now, without further ado, the Top Ten!

1. Eeriest movie theater experience IT. I went to see Andy Muschietti's film adaptation of Stephen King's IT on opening weekend, so I guess I was part of the overall phenomenon of the highest-grossing horror film of all time? That wasn't what made it particularly eerie, though. I feel like I should establish at the outset that I enjoyed the movie a lot and am looking forward to Chapter Two in 2019. But the feeling of anticipation for the movie, particularly during the final moments sitting in the theater waiting for the show to start, was deeply strange.

Part of that was because, while I do go to the movies more often now than I did when, say, I had babies with erratic sleep schedules living in my house, we are living in a golden age of superhero movies and thus even a half-dozen trips to the multiplex can be, and generally are, wall-to-wall four color comics stuff. (Fair warning: a LOT of items on this retrospective countdown tie into superheroes one way or another.) But more to the point, despite the fact that I continue to and presumably will always identify as a horror fan, it had been an exceedingly long time since I had watched a new-to-me horror movie. So I felt a lot of the same not-entirely-pleasant jitters that I've sometimes felt when I get on a rollercoaster for the first time in a long time: wondering if I actually am about to enjoy the experience, or if it's going to be terror and misery from end to end. Do I like the abstract idea of horror more than I enjoy the rite of parturition of subjecting myself to any given horror gauntlet, especially now that I'm a weary old man instead of a boundary-pushing, thrill-seeking, bullet-proof teenager? And then the movie started, and I went along for the ride, and I gradually realized that the movie was such a faithful adaptation that it lacked any capacity to really unnerve me: I knew every nightmare beat, and I knew who would live or die. So, yes, good movie, overthought it a little bit on the threshold but ultimately would recommend.

2. Best late bandwagoning (third annual!) CRAZY EX-GIRLFRIEND. Once again, I made use of streaming technology to quickly catch up on a tv series that I had heard good things about, and once again, I was not disappointed. I love musicals, as I'm sure I've acknowledged previously, although within that sweeping statement I do have preferred approaches and not-so-muches. I do like musicals where the songs genuinely emphasize and illuminate emotional beats and otherwise inexpressible aspects of the characters' interior lives, musicals where the story is (at least a little bit) larger than life and thus the bursting into song feels of a piece, matching the overall intensity (see: Les Mis, Frozen, etc.). I also like musicals where there's some in-story justification for the music at all, either because it's literally a tale about a musicians who write and perform songs which happen to be autobiographical (see: Hedwig and the Angry Inch) or because the singing and dancing is meant to be metaphorical or otherwise justified in some meta way (see: the musical episode of Scrubs, where a patient has a brain malfunction and hears everything in melody and lyrics, or the Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode where a demon's spell did it). I don't particularly care for jukebox musicals, where existing popular songs are shoehorned into a story. This is probably why I never got into Glee at all (well, and I also heard it was kind of a trainwreck of a show more often than not) nor have I ever been much interested in American Idol or The Voice or Insert Show Where Nobodies I Don't Care About Sing Mediocre Covers.

Anyway, I say all of that to say that Crazy Ex-Girlfriend pushes all of the right buttons and none of the wrong ones. It's a story about a woman who upends her life in an impulsive moment and deals with all the instability that follows, both internal and external. There's more than a little suggestion that most (maybe all) of the tune-belting and choreography are just extended fantasy sequences happening inside the characters' heads as they react to what's "really" happening. And the musical numbers themselves often take on completely non-diegetic trappings of different sets and costumes and cinematic styles, because it's filmed tv and not live Broadway and they can do that, on top of which the songs are decidedly not covers but (even better, to a Beggar's Opera fan) pastiches that use pop culture to comment on the story and simultaneously comment right back on the tropes of pop culture. I don't want to give any specific examples, I just want you (unless you hate all things related to musicals, including joy) to check it out if you haven't already.

3. Best "woke" fiction LOVECRAFT COUNTRY. Please note that when I put "woke" in quotes I am in no way, shape or form denigrating the idea of wokeness in general or the specific wokeness of the book in question. I am merely poking at myself and the very notion that I am sufficiently woke. I know I'm not, but I'm trying. It's been that kind of year, one in which (in addition to other actions of a less passive nature) I deliberately sought out stories farther outside my personal perspective, whether it be women or POCs (or both) recounting memoirs or documenting the world around us in essays or expressing inner truths in fiction. Lovecraft Country, by Matt Ruff, was something I approached as a kind of baby step in this direction. It's a novel, and the author is a white dude, and it's about spooky sci-fi and fantasy stuff. But it's about a family of African-Americans living in the mid 20th century, and it does an excellent job (in my humble opinion) of intertwining real and imaginary horrors, the fear that there are supernatural monsters lurking along a country road in the middle of the night rubbing uncomfortably against the fear that there are racist policemen doing the same.

All good speculative fiction should be a metaphor for something (the reigning champ being Buffy, of course) and Lovecraft Country goes all in on this, and then some. There's value in a story like Planet of the Apes where the humans are lorded over and considered inferior by the simians, and it's all a big parable about racism. And then there's a story like Lovecraft Country where ghosts and cosmic gods and blood magic and the like can illustrate various concepts of otherness and power imbalances and, just in case you missed the point, it all happens in the context of our actual ugly history of segregated housing and education, anti-miscegenation laws, white supremacy and more. Plus the whole story wraps up with a punchline that's equal parts laugh-getter and kick in the gut. It is, to me, an exceptionally compelling way to reckon with unpleasant, uncomfortable truths, and a fantastic gateway to an understanding beyond the usual white privilege of SF/F/H.

4. Most exciting yet unsettling development (second annual!) (The Little Guy's burgeoning interest in George R.R. Martin's) WORLD OF ICE AND FIRE. In many ways, I am living my best life, in that I have an amazing wife and three phenomenal children, and am simultaneously enjoying a golden age of television, the renaissance of Star Wars, the still somewhat unbelievable inescapable Marvel Cinematic Universe, and on and on and on. AND - here's the real gobsmacker - my wife and kids and I can all to a large extent share the enjoyment of these pop culture obsessions. My wife and I read N.K. Jemison novels and watch The Good Place and Stranger Things. As I write this, I have just purchased tickets online for my entire nuclear family to go see a Sunday matinee of The Last Jedi. And seemingly every day there's a new way in which my kids are catching up to me on the classics and/or my personal faves, whether it's my eldest working his way through the last couple doorstopper installments of Harry Potter or my daughter expressing interest in checking out this Secret of NIMH cartoon movie I keep talking about. By and large, my wife and I think of ourselves as equal parts curators and gatekeepers for our children. On the one hand, we try to make sure they don't consume anything that's wildly inappropriate, and that we're there for them if they want to talk about anything that scares, confuses or in some way unsettles them. And on the other hand, we try to point them towards the best of the best stuff. Certainly both my wife and I would consider the tv series Game of Thrones and the novels of A Song of Ice and Fire to be good stuff, but just as certainly it is self-evidently a bit much for a nine year old. However, our obsession with all things of Westeros has led to a lot of tie-in accumulation, including but not limited to: art prints of cats as GoT characters on our den walls; Christmas ornaments; action figures and Ommegang beer bottles on shelves; and reference materials such as detailed maps of the fictional realms and The World of Ice & Fire: The Untold History of Westeros and the Game of Thrones. Let's just call that last one TWOIF for short.

TWOIF is an unwieldy oversized hardback. It would be a coffee table book if we had a coffee table. It's one of those things you buy because the sixth novel hasn't come out yet and doesn't even have a release date and it's months until the new season on HBO and you're dying for a fix. And it's got lovely interior illustrations and thus it wasn't completely surprising when the little guy saw this book lying around with a three headed dragon on the cover and opened it up to find more cool pictures inside and then started reading the text. To date, neither I nor my wife have read this book more than glancingly. It's written in a fairly dry and academic style, filling in the backstory of the saga like a history primer. The good news is this means it's much less salacious or otherwise disturbing than the novels themselves, which is fortunate because the little guy has read the book COVER TO COVER. MORE THAN ONCE. He's still very much of the age and very much the kind of kid who enjoys ordered systems and classifications and all that. For me, the convoluted continuity of comic books scratched that itch. For him, lines of Targaryen succession and the sigils on the banners of the great houses do the same. More power to him, though of course this has led to him asking when he can watch the show (which we own on Blu-ray) or read the books (which, again, reside in the house) and we have been putting him off and putting him off and trying to determine what exactly is the minimum acceptable "old enough". It's not 10. It's probably not 18. Narrowing it down more than that isn't easy. Still, it is nice to think that someday we'll be able to share this particular fandom with him, just weird to be getting a glimpse of it so soon. Oh, and lest anyone think we are the meanest bait-and-switch parents in the world, we did get him a copy of A Knight of The Seven Kingdoms for his ninth birthday, which is the collection of Dunk and Egg stories Martin has written. Fiction, more entertaining than invented history, and practically YA, or at least a bit more kid-appropriate than the ASOIAF novels. He's quickly wearing that book out, too.

Incidentally the runner-up in this category was the little guy becoming obsessed with Pokemon and dragging both his siblings willingly along with him. That's a hole 'nother universe of hundreds of characters and rigid rules, and one which I have NO personal experience with. I mean, sooner or later, all of my kids will have interests which are not just recycled Gen X (or older) intellectual properties. But it is a bit odd nonetheless when it happens.

5. Eeriest music-related realization ALT-ROCK IS OLD. OK, maybe this isn't terribly "eerie" per se, but it does have to do with confronting the fact that the march of time is relentless and my mortality is an irrefutable fact, so that's at least unnerving? Anyway, this year my wife got a new car and I got her old car. (My old car was the trade-in for her new one. Circle of life.) My old car didn't have a working radio in it, but around the end of summer I had a new-to-me car and renewed access to the FM dial. And thus it was that I noticed something which may or may not have been true last year, or the year before that, or even five years ago with me not so much paying close attention with pregnancies and babies and all that RealLife stuff.

I basically listen to two local radio stations. One is BIG 100 and the other is DC 101. (This time of year I also listen to 97.1 which is normally adult contempo but plays Christmas music all December.) BIG 100 is a "classic rock" station. That means they play a lot of the music my parents' generation (mostly my dad and uncles) were listening to when I was growing up. DC 101 is a "modern rock" station, which I trust is self-explanatory. The thing is, both of these stations seem to be experiencing time-dilation. When I was growing up, "classic rock" meant the Beatles, the Stones, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd - bands that had been around since the 60's. Big 100 plays all of those bands but also Van Halen, AC/DC, Pat Benatar, Foreigner - bands that were not just still going in the 80's but in some cases at their highest heights or just gaining traction in the 80's. DC 101 plays the Postal Service and the Revivalists and other relevant, reasonably new music. But they also play older stuff sometimes, too, going back as far as the late 80's or so, presumably whenever they started the "modern rock" format which they have remarkably managed to stay consistent with for decades. (Now watch this be the kiss of death that sees them become a conglomerate country music station or something.) Anyway, I kid you not, I was just looking at the online "recently played" pages for both stations to make sure I was accurately representing them in this paragraph, and there was the point I've been driving at: in the past hour BIG 100 played "Stand" by R.E.M. and DC 101 played "It's The End Of The World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)" also by R.E.M.

It's not just the boys from Athens, either. I've heard Pearl Jam on both stations, and Stone Temple Pilots, maybe even Everclear unless I was hallucinating, and more. Apparently the late 80's and early-to-mid 90's are fair game for either format now. I turned 13 in 1987 and graduated college in 1996 so that's my personal Golden Age/Formative Years. And it was the dawn of alternative rock, still recognized by anyone championing modernity, yet it was so long ago that it's considered classic. Part of me thinks this just means I was very lucky to be born when I was and come of age when I did, but mostly it makes me feel the all-downhill-from-here kind of old.

6. Best throwback comic FUTURE QUEST. So let's talk more about my early 80's childhood instead! Or, to be fair, cartoons from the late 60's that were still getting play when I was an early 80's kid. I grew up a huge fan of the Hanna Barbera adventure cartoons when I was little. The first time I can remember ever wanting my mom to make me a costume for Halloween, because I didn't think it could be bought at the store, it was when I wanted to be Space Ghost. I adored the Herculoids and, come to think of it, maybe the reason why I've indulged my wife in amassing half a dozen pets in our home is because now we're just some blue loincloths and the cats and dogs shooting lasers out their eyes and/or hot rocks out their noses away from living that particular dream.

So, anyway, this year I picked up the first trade collection of Future Quest, which is a crazy mash-up story wherein Jonny Quest teams up with Birdman and meets Mightor and Space Ghost and Frankenstein Junior and is totally bonkers bananapants in the best possible way. It reads a little like fanfic, of course, but I have a soft spot for fanfic and it reads like good fanfic. It was just pure fun and made me happily nostalgic and sometimes that's all it takes to merit inclusion on this year-end countdown, okay?

In the same vein, the best throwback streaming show this year was Parks and Recreation on Netflix. Yes, the show only ended two or three years ago, and that final season was time-jumped forward to 2017 (no holographic phones here in the real version, sadly), but my wife and I loved that show and we miss it and it makes for great dipping-in-and-out-of-at-random because every episode is a delight.

7. Best torch-passing THE INCREDIBLES. I could have mentioned this in passing up above in number four, but I felt like it merited its own entry. I have been trying, unsuccessfully, for years to get my kids to watch The Incredibles. For one thing, it's still pretty much my favorite Pixar movie. For another, my kids have proven oddly resistant to showing any interest in superheroes at all. They never got into Teen Titans GO! The little girl expressed a fleeting interest in DC Superhero Girls and got a Wonder Woman doll, but then she was back to stuffed animals and toy cottages. The little guy read a kid's book about Rocket and Groot but hasn't been asking about Guardians of the Galaxy much at all, even though I'd be more likely to put that movie in the eyeballs of a nine-year-old than Game of Thrones. And countless sets of Legos containing Superman or Captain America or Batman (not to mention the LEGO Batman Movie) have done nothing to light a spark. But maybe, I reasoned, The Incredibles would be a gateway. Whether or not it is remains to be seen, but the fact is while we were at the beach this summer I managed to get all three kids to sit down one afternoon and watch the adventures of the Parr family. And they all liked it! So much so that on a recent December weekend the little girl asked (unprompted!!!) if she could watch it again.

The main thing about being the pop-culture pusher in the family is that I actually try not to push too hard. I suggest things (in super-chill laid-back cool dad mode) and either the kids bite or they don't. The Incredibles felt like an exception to the rule where the kids didn't bite but I kept pushing every now and then anyway. So to have that finally pay off was enormously gratifying.

8. Biggest disappointment ANGEL CATBIRD. One of the books I was really looking forward to checking out this year was Angel Catbird by Margaret Atwood. Margaret Atwood is of course a rightly revered luminary of speculative fiction, and I've been an admirer of hers since college when I read The Handmaid's Tale. I couldn't be happier for the success the television adaptation of Handmaid has garnered. Angel Catbird was Atwood's first stab at doing a superhero comicbook, which of course is my most dearly cherished story genre. It's a standalone work about a superhero who is simultaneously a cat, a bird, and an angel. In other words, it's a bonkers idea, unfettered by any continuity constraints of the existing superhero universes, written by an all-time great, and I was DOWN for that. Except once I finished, I was LETDOWN. It seemed that Atwood decided that superhero comics don't need to make sense at all and took the liberties afforded by the stereotypical idea of comics-as-brainless to throw a whole bunch of incoherent ideas together and call it a day. There's meticulously thought-out bonkers (see FUTURE QUEST above!) and there's disdainful not-even-trying bonkers (see ANGEL CATBIRD). Frustrating.

The runner-up in this category was the NBC sitcom POWERLESS. We DVR'ed it and I gamely watched a few episodes but it never really clicked for me. I think Vanessa Hudgens has serviceable leading lady charms, and Danny Pudi and Alan Tudyk have been involved in some of my all-time favorite shows, and again the whole superhero thing is right in my wheelhouse, including exploring the peripheries thereof, which Powerless promised in setting itself up as superhero-adjacent. I understood that it was always going to be constrained by its own budget, and was going to make that part of the overarching metahumor, where the biggest blockbuster action we were likely to see was a faceoff between Crimson Fox and Jack O'Lantern (and yes, clearly I know the deep backstory of both those fourth-stringer DC Comics characters). And I also understood that another running joke was going to be something along the lines of "Wouldn't it be crazy living as a normal person in the superhero world/Aren't superheroes kind of inherently ridiculous?" What really put me off, though, was the fact that in the end it was a mediocre workplace comedy with a smattering of comicbooky window dressing. As it dawned on me that the plots, and the jokes derived therefrom, could have all the superhero references excised from them and really not change much at all, I realized it really wasn't worth sitting through the stale sitcom jokes (uh oh, somebody is sweating from the strain of keeping up an elaborate cover story to hide a trivially minor problem!) for the occasional none-too-clever Batman Easter egg. Alas.

9. Biggest accomplishment I consume pop culture preeeeeeeeeeetty much like air, food and water. So when I think about accomplishments it's usually in creative terms, like whether or not I sold any short stories this year (which I did!) or finally finished writing a novel of my own (which I did not). To say that I saw something or read something or even learned something is just a natural occurrence, not an achievement. However! Let it be known that 2017 will go down in history as the year that I finally read all three novels of The Lord of the Rings. Growing up as a geek who loved comics, endlessly rewatched Star Wars, played Dungeons & Dragons, and all the rest, my biggest personal gap in first hand knowledge of The Canon was never having consumed Tolkien's trilogy. Everybody has gaps, of course, but it was extra strange that this was mine considering, for example, that my father had read the books before I was born and we had copies of them in the house. Or considering that I had an illustrated storybook and readalong cassette of The Hobbit (based on the Rankin/Bass animated version) which I wore out, and that I did graduate from that to reading the original novel of The Hobbit when I was nine or ten. I tried to move on from there to The Fellowship of the Ring, but I gave up early on because it starts so ponderously. And that was my excuse for years and years: I hadn't read Lord of the Rings though I had tried but couldn't get past the slow beginning. Tolkien's serious-not-for-kids prose was too much not my cup of tea.

Even Peter Jackson's movies couldn't motivate me, though I enjoyed them and felt some measure of satisfaction in finally knowing the majority of the story through their faithful adaptation.

Once again, it all came down to the little guy's burgeoning interests. He read The Hobbit and he (and his siblings) watched the three Hobbit movies, and it seemed logical to move on to Lord of the Rings next. And when I realized it might very well come to pass that my child would have read the trilogy while I still had not, I resolved to finally cross the thing off. So the little guy and I read the trilogy more or less concurrently, passing back and forth the same paperbacks. It still starts off slow! But I powered through, and I'm glad I did. It does have its merits, above and beyond being an ur-text of geekdom, and it is an immense relief to be free from the burden and shame of my prior ignorance. Huzzah!

Notably, this also unlocked the achievement of watching all of Jackson's Lord of the Rings movies as a family. The kids had never seen them, and we went with the extended, four-hours-apiece director's cuts (one at a time, spread out, not some crazy grueling marathon) which even my wife and I had never seen. Everyone enjoyed them, though the bino really wanted more Shelob in the final installment, which is fair.

10. Unfulfilled Ambitions and Anticipations Sometime around the middle of January I set myself a goal of reading 200 short stories over the course of 2017. Between the small press anthologies I try to support, the availability of a decent amount of short fiction one can read for free online, and the fact that I had yet to acquire Stephen King's latest short story collection (Bazaar of Bad Dreams, which came out in 2015!) I thought this was modestly do-able. I fell short by a good bit, though, only logging 124. And I still haven't picked up King's Bazaar. Still, that's ten a month, and I did manage to read Kristen Roupenian's "Cat Person" in the New Yorker, for whatever that's worth.

I don't know if Jordan Peele's Get Out was the most talked about movie in 2017, but it felt that way at various times. I love me some Peele and some subversive horror-comedy, but couldn't make a viewing of Get Out happen. But! I recently DVR'ed it off HBO and my wife has expressed interest in watching it, so that is an oversight I hope to rectify in the very near future.

As far as what I am most looking forward to in 2018, I see no reason to believe the current golden ages of television and movies and pop culture in general are going to come to an abrupt end, so I'm spoiled for choice. But one offering easily stands head and broad, burly shoulders above all the rest: The Incredibles 2!!! June 15 should be a very fun day, especially since it can be a family outing now that I've got the kids on board as fans. Maybe I'll even update the blog again in six months with a review!

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