Monday, December 30, 2013

The New World Symphony, and Life

Note: An older article, here republished.

"He said unto them, He that has ears to hear, let him hear." (Mark 4:9)

This being my New Year's Eve post, I find myself in a reflective mood.  That's to be expected, of course.  That I'm writing this at an exceedingly precious moment requires a bit of an explanation.
It's the evening of December 16, 2011, the 118th anniversary of the premiere of Dvorak's New World Symphony.  I am listening to it in its entirety with my daughter who, at 9 months old (in two days time), isn't particularly listening to it.  (She does look up at the TV from time to time, where the screensaver is showing animal pictures, to her delight.)  The point, though, is that she's hearing it.  There's always been something hypnotic in the New World Symphony, something which has spoken deeply to me since I first heard it in high school.  The Wikipedia article on the symphony references Dvorak's desire to imbue his music with Native American and African-American influences.  To my moderately-tuned ears, I don't hear that--I hear a great deal, though. 

I'll pause for a moment to say that I'm no audiophile.  I played saxophone in middle school and high school, and I also partook in high school chorus.  I never particularly practiced and could only be considered above average in that I was in the upper 50%, but rarely in the top 10.

Yet art--great art--speaks to its audience.  The first movement speaks of something terrible and wonderful, as one might view a new city from afar.  It is big, bold, organized, mechanic, its sounds looking towards venturesome progress with a vague wonder of what's been left behind.  In the second movement of the symphony, it might not be Native Americans, but I do hear trees and grass and pristine nature.  The third movement is an optimistic progression, with settlers in bonnets, the happy clanking of iron and steel making swords, railroads, and again the quiet look backwards to something hauntingly lost.  Or left behind.  It turns genteel, with hoop skirts and braided-hair women, and mustachioed gentlemen. The fourth movement is strong and affirming, a spinning glisten with gold, happiness and pride.  It says, "Some did fall on good ground.  Be proud of this land; use care.  Be proud of its people; use care.  Be proud of yourself... use care."

That is the best I can describe it.  It's like talking about the color orange.  Calling it "not red" and "brighter than blue" doesn't really give a definition to the thing.  It's the same thing with the 9th (the piece being alternatively called Dvorak's 9th Symphony):  I've described it is as I've described it.  No musicology, no glance over Dvorak's intent.  Just the laser-like beam between the music and my soul.

A year and a half ago, before my wife and I started our family, I was able to see the 9th performed by the New Jersey Symphony.  We were in the first few rows (which, I admit, isn't where real hob-nobs sit, as it's too close.  Oh well.), and it was heavenly.  Not only was it one of the first concerts conducted by new music director Jacques Lacombe, but it was joyfully different from the well-worn copy I have on my iPod.  (Well, as well-worn as digital copies get....) Not very different, mind you, but to hear it performed organically, to see it conducted with nuance and feeling and no concern for the length of a CD... it was heaven.  It also was the only time I've ever heard music with a sense that I can only describe as "out of time."  When Lacombe lowered his hands for the final time at the end of the fourth movement, it felt as though less than twenty minutes had gone by, when close to fifty had transpired.  It may not have transformed me, but it most certainly did transport me.

And, as the symphony enters its final minutes as I type, I cannot help but look to my daughter.  This year has brought her, my very own new world.  She has, I suppose, origins in places across seas and oceans, but, like Dvorak's masterpiece, is here to make her future in this new world.

Some did fall on good ground.

It's been quite a year.

Monday, December 23, 2013

A Community Christmas Miracle

I have just rewatched one of the greatest television high-wire acts--an achievement of 22 minutes of Christmas greatness, compounded by how far-fetched its great success is.

I only started watching NBC's Community in between the first two seasons, at the behest of my brother.  Courtesy of the magic of DVD, I raced through the first season and a half, having most recently watched "Abed's Uncontrollable Christmas," which originally aired on December 9, 2010.

For the sad uninitiated, Community takes place at a community college where seven disparate folks from seven different walks of life have come together in a study group. The requisite "craaaazy guy" (ala Urkle and Balki) is Abed, a Pakistani/Polish-American who wants to be a film director and has Asperger's syndrome.  This oftentimes leads him to make meta comments about the show, suggesting that sometimes his view of reality skews towards seeing his life as a TV show. 

"Abed's Uncontrollable Christmas" has a cold opening where everything in it is stop motion animation--to us, anyway.  We are seeing the show through the third person limited narration of Abed, who conjectures that everything is now in stop motion because this is the most important Christmas ever (after, you know, the first one).  As the plot unfolds, the dialogue of his friends starts to make it clear that they do not share his view--that the episode is taking place in the normal continuity of the show, and those around him do not see things in animation.

Ultimately, Abed is (marginally) treated by the (marginal) psychology teacher, Professor Duncan.  They decide to go, in Abed's delusion, anyway, to Planet Abed, where everything is Christmas.  Slowly, we realize that Abed's friends are gamely playing along in an attempt to be there for him in his strange time of need, if not understand him.

Reaching Santa's Workshop, it is empty and cold.  Professor Duncan (dressed as a warlock) returns, saying that he knows why Abed has had this break from reality: Abed's mother, divorced from his father, always used to visit on December 9 (the airdate of the show).  They would watch a Christmas movie together.

But this year she has sent a card saying that she cannot make it--that she has a new family, that he is a man now, and he should understand.

The show turns surprisingly poignant at that point--doubly so since the sad emotions are being communicated by claymation dolls.  Yet the emotions are real.

Stop motion Abed is consumed by ice, literally... but also a heart-felt metaphor for what has caused his break with reality.  Abed's mother, the person who kept the Christmas spirit alive in him, is now gone.  The show--a comedy, mind you--suddenly is sad, having cut into the viewers heart.  Abed's friends return and sing of the meaning of Christmas, thawing him: that it can be whatever you want it to be, so long as you are with people you love.

It is sappy.  It is effective.  It is true.

I expected the show to then turn back to its normal photography, but it instead cut back to their study group meeting room, all still in stop motion animation.  Fixed, healed, Abed wonders if the stop motion should stop.  He is interrupted by a friend who says no, that it should continue for the holidays.

We then see the whole clay group in Abed's dorm room, watching the end of a stop motion Christmas movie.  "The End," the clay TV reads, and it fades to black.

In the screen, we see the real life cast of Community reflected back.

Sweet, heartfelt, sad, funny, and wonderful: can a 22 minute snarky hipster comedy be all that--and stop motion?

It truly is a Community Christmas miracle.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Star Trek, The Mother Load

Yes. It looks like a penis.
It's Star Trek.  

It's always been Star Trek. 

Where else can you find the widest range of fans around--or fans with such longevity?  Some of the most meaningful Trek is over 40 years old; some of best Trek is the most recent iteration.  Trek, and its fans, can encapsulate the very best about popular culture, television viewers, and, I daresay, humanity itself.  In the 1960s, the fandom latched onto the notion that with cooperation and understanding, peace and prosperity could become a universal ideal.  To that end, fans have seen the (then) far-fetched notion of a multi-racial incorporation of individuals who advance based on their skills, not adherence to the old boys club.  Just consider the bridge of the Classic Enterprise: Black, Asian, WASP, Jew (insofar as Misters Nemoy and Shatner are Jewish), Russian, and Southern American (this last one being its own category in some circles).  Aside from Uhura being made to wear a skirt to work everyday, all are blindly equal.  This is what Trek fans have embraced.

Then there's the seedy underbelly--and underbelly fed by the 1980s glut of Trek.  They were high times then: films every few years, the start of The Next Generation, and merchandising.  Ah, the merchandising that was eaten up by any loyal fan.  Toys weren't for children--they were collectors items!  Pocket Books wasn't for pedestrian paperbacks--they were for semi-official Trek novels, of which one needed to read... all of them!
He's an Admiral now.

And then there were the fan clubs.  Hello, my name is Matt, and I'm a recovering Star Trek fan club member.  I know of what I speak, having inauspiciously served "aboard" the USS Challenger for a time in my pre-driving teens.  My parents, I'm sure, were thrilled to drive me and my friend to our monthly meetings.  And what a bunch it was, meeting in an empty, cold, sparse first aid building.  In retrospect, it was like the worst up-and-coming religion ever, just kind of sitting around and praising great god Trek.  Captain Bob was engaged or dating the first officer; she, in turn, seemed to have some rather serious illness.  The typical meeting started with some sort of whole group "thing" (perhaps a report of whoever had gone to the latest convention), and there would be a look ahead to upcoming things (probably the upcoming convention).  Then we'd break into "section time," or some such name.  I was in engineering.  The... sigh... yes, I'll say it... "chief of engineering" was in the process of overseeing our ships... sigh... refit.  How one refits an imaginary ship, and how it takes longer than a moment, I do not know.  I do recall that he was dead set on the ship having four engines (which I'd venture gives you little benefit but more work for the engineering crew), and demanded that the new boat be painted in gunmetal gray.  He spat hate talking about how the stupid show dared light its ships, claiming that the bad guys couldn't shoot what they couldn't see.  I, as an early teen, dared not point out that a) the bad guys used sensors that detected more than the visual spectrum and b) it was just a show.  He further stated that he had never watched TNG, as it was impossible to build a ship with curved, fluid lines.  I dared not point out that the whole of Star Trek was rather silly, from a nuts-and-bots, realistic point of view: aliens, transporters, warp drive, etc.

I stopped going to Challenger meetings shortly before my 13th birthday.  You see, at the time there was a funny television program called Saturday Night Live.  I think that it has no relation to the unfunny show of the same name on now.  Patrick Stewart hosted, and even though the show was in decline at the time, I as a Trek fan, watched.  It wasn't that great.  The "erotic cake" bit seemed like the future of SNL: drawn out and stupid.  But here's the kicker: everyone at Challenger saw the episode.  Live.  The night before our Challenger meeting.  And you know what everyone did after "section time?" We went into the next room to watch Patrick Stewart on SNL.  For the second time.  In a little over 12 hours.

This was also the time that I stopped being a part of "Starfleet," the national officially-sanctioned Trek fan club.  They had the most stupid of controversies: some Vice Admiral (running for election as Head of Starfleet or whatever stupid title was bestowed upon the president of the fan club made) made a joke about Klingons.  Pan-de-mon-ium broke out. She (a woman of color, ironically) was branded a racist.  In classic "how not to handle a crisis" mode, she first fought the onslaught, then gave a half-assed excuse (she was speaking "in character as a movie-Trek-era person," then ultimately had to give up her aspirations to be Head of Starfleet.  The pound of flesh was her resignation from the organization.

Thus, then, is what makes Trek the mother load for crazy-ass fans.  Born of an aspiration for a better world, its fans at the height of the franchise would meet in cold first aid buildings to watch a lousy show because it had "a guy from Star Trek."

Monday, December 9, 2013

A Beloved Graphic Novel

It's not often that something entertaining can truly blow you away--that "I can't breathe because I never saw it coming" sort of moment in a story.  If you saw The Sixth Sense without being spoiled, that's probably one time.  The LOST episode "Walkabout" comes to mind as well, though some wise few (me) called the zinger about 20 minutes in.

At the top of my list, though, is the graphic novel Kingdom Come.  To borrow a line from old J.R.R., it is precious to me.  The basic story is this: ten years from the perpetual "now" of DC Comics, Superman has retired, our well-known heroes have aged or moved on, and a new, more violent breed of superhero has taken to protect--and wantonly carouse--in our world.  We quickly learn that this violent "protection" has lead to a nuclear disaster of catastrophic proportions, leading in turn to a showdown literally of Biblical proportions between goodies and baddies, humans and superhumans alike.  The narration of the story is set by Norman McKay, a minister whose faith is slipping after the nuclear disaster.  He is led by the Spectre, a fairly familiar DC character able to transcend time and space.  Together it's a Scrooge-and-a-ghost dynamic which, conveniently enough, lets us flit from hither and yon across the globe to see the story unfold. 

Two other points should be made.  First, all the artwork has been painted by Alex Ross; second, it was originally released, as graphic novels often are, in four issues.  When I first read it, the former was apparent, as I was aware of Mr. Ross' work in the Marvels graphic novel.  As for the second point... for that I was not prepared.

I mistook the first issue--coming in at about 50 pages in a paperback (i.e. not comic paper) issue--as the only issue, as a one-shot vision of an alternate future.  McKay sees some horrible visions to open the story, visions of Biblical gloom and doom.  As the rest of the story unfolds, and we see fun and interesting ways that familiar characters are being "re-presented." Norman's visions are largely forgotten, and if remembered, relegated to the dustbin of artistic flourish.  At the climax of the story (in the issue, anyway), Superman returns, saving the day and putting the new non-heroes on their place.  It's stunning and amazing and cheer-worthy, a truly cinematic moment made out of static art.

And on the next page, Norman's visions of apocalypse return, ending the story, telling us that there's much, much more to come.

I love Kingdom Come.  I wrote my college thesis on it, comprising a whopping 30 pages of critical analysis on it, arguing that it deserves to be elevated to the realm of postmodern fiction.

The climax of the novel is the showdown between Superman--but a Superman who is older, one step slower, and who turned his back on humanity for ten years--and Captain Marvel.  For those not in the know, the basic DC backstory for Captain Marvel is that Billy Batson, a 10 year old boy, can yell "Shazam!" and call down magic thunder to turn him into the powerful adult hero.  In the course of Kingdom Come, Billy Batson grew up under the brainwashing employ (and vaguely-suggested sexual abuse) of--wait for it--Lex Luthor.  Ultimately, Marvel goes rogue from goodies and baddies alike, being an X factor as fighting moves closer and closer to Armageddon.  He is the only one powerful enough to stop Superman.  He is the harbinger of death.  It leads to the showdown of a lifetime, that of all our heroes and villains fighting towards the very brink of their end.

And that is just about the biggest game that you could count on: every single character you've ever cared about (at least in the DC universe) battling lest they be, quite simple, no more.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Cringing At Trek; or, When Riker Turned A Gay Alien Straight

Star Trek: The Next Generation's fifth season is punctuated by a litany of episodes About Something: politics, rape, suicide, language, abortion.  In "The Outcast," Trek takes a sci-fi look at homosexuality.  The J'naii are presented as a genderless society who occasionally have members that exist in an alien closet with secret desires of being one gender and being attracted to the opposite.

I remember watching this episode in 1992.  As a 12-year-old, it wasn't exactly fun to sit through what is ultimately a heavy-handed missive on gender and sexual orientation.  In one scene, the alien Soren (played by Melinda Culea of A-Team fame (a female actress was required by the producers because Soren would end up a-kissin' Riker)) asks about the differences of gender.  Seeing Jonathan Frakes bridge the gap between Rikerian charm and a clinical explanation of "male insemination and females carrying the baby" and "the intimacy of procreation can be quite enjoyable" was, to say the least, not fun to watch with my family.

There are further scenes which serve the story, but in a clunky manner.  Sorren comes out to Riker, stating that Soren's preference is female, and her attraction is to males.  She describes how this is a secret one identifies at a certain age, and that it is a tightly-guarded secret.  She tells the story of a classmate in school who was maligned at school for being male, how he was beaten up in school for being that way, and how the solution was mental whoosy-whatsit programming to erase his culturally-unacceptable thoughts.  

Ultimately, Soren and Riker share some secret canoodeling in the woods; Soren is caught, brought before a court, and gives a rousing speech about how she isn't a deviant, and how "the state" cannot dictate how people love each other.  Her dialogue ends the act on a high note.  After the commercial break concludes, the judge basically says, "Great, now that we know you're this way, we know for sure to take you to the mental whoosy-whatsit programmer."

Trek has a long tradition of boldly taking viewers to new cultural territory--the first interracial kiss on television between Kirk and Uhura being an oft-cited watershed moment.  (Indeed, that the modern movie Spock and Uhura kiss was of no cultural significance, and that movie Spock is played by a gay man has become a mere cultural footnote.)  Yet in "The Outcast," Trek half-asses it.  The gay metaphor is so thinly set that it isn't a metaphor (living in secret, bullying at school, "deviant urges," etc).  The show wanted to tackle homosexuality, but gave itself "takeaways" and wiggle room.  Soren is normal by our standards, whereas normalcy is gender neutrality by J'naii standards.  It's not, the show seems to say with showmanship, about anything, just the ideas between the two made-up cultures!

I'd also argue that it's a bit of a counter message to have Riker be so damned dashing that Soren voices her sexual orientation in his manly, musky presence.  Granted, her dialogue establishes that she's felt this way all her life, but it takes someone of sufficient masculinity to out her femininity.  Couldn't that be evidence for the reverse: that with sufficient mojo, Riker could turn a straight man gay?  Or a gay woman straight? 

I suppose a counter argument was that the Kirk/Uhura kiss had equal wiggle room, as in "Plato's Stepchildren" they are forced to do so.  That said, it was 1968, the height of the civil rights movement--the year MLK was shot!  The Kirk/Uhura episode also was championed by Gene Roddenberry, who locked horns with the network; NBC wanted a "non-kiss take" to show in the South.  Nichele Nichols and William Shatner, wanting to support Roddenberry and the idea in general, gave them the non-kiss take--with over the top (for Shatner!) acting, flubbed lines, crossed eyes, and other unusable takes. 

Thus, I suppose it is rather sadly fitting that "The Outcast" would air a few months after Roddenberry's death (though to be fair, his participation in Next Gen had waned since the second season).  There was no one to champion a proper Star Trek take on homosexuality--no one to fight the studio, other producers, and the world.  And thus "The Outcast," while brave in its attempt, ultimately falls flat--an outcast itself. 

Monday, November 25, 2013

Deus vs. Diablo Ex Machina

"In this episode, I die.  Wait, what?"
Once upon a time, long long ago, the Greeks invented "deus ex machina," or literally "god out of the machine." It was a handy-dandy device: got your hero pinned to a wall by the baddie?  Boom, Zeus comes out of nowhere, strikes down the baddie, and victory is won for the good.

Nowadays, it's looked down upon as a cheap trick, as the heavy hand of the sloppy writer.  Can't kill off your unstoppable Martians in War of the Worlds? Take everyone to the brink of destruction, the boom, microscopic life off the alien invaders.  (I'd argue that it isn't a completely sloppy ending, but hey.)  I wonder what makes someone write a deus ex machina ending.  Lack of talent?  A great story that needs an exit?  The constraints of time/energy/budget?

Take, for example, the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode "Ethics." Now, to be fair, this is a season five episode--the season where they tackled: the after-effects of rape, metaphor in language, Romulan politics, childbirth, death of both parents, ghettoization, addiction, and abortion.  In the first half of the season.  In "Ethics," they added another warm-and-fuzzy to the pile: Worf, "permanently" paralyzed in an accident, ponders suicide as a sane and rational answer.

To be fair, the show deserves credit for jumping into such a grave topic (ha!), and for doing so in a manner which wholeheartedly fits into the show.  Who else would consider the 24th Century equivalent to robot braces a travesty and non-option if not Worf, the outsider to the Gene Roddenberry enlightenment?  However, the show quickly paints itself into a corner.

In a scene about halfway between the accident and the ending (deus ex machina spoiler: he lives!  and walks!), a guest doctor muses about the fact that Klingon's have redundant systems: extra ribs, extra livers, it's all set up "in line" so that if one goes, the other takes over.  The show quickly covers its deus ex machinan tracks by scoffing at the Klingon body, saying that it's actually more that can go wrong, i.e. double chance for liver cancer (my words, not theirs).

The show then spends a lot of time debating the appropriate nature of suicide; it does a very nice job of looking at it from multiple angles, with different characters acting organically and sharing appropriate and thought-provoking views.  Worf ultimately decides to try a risky thingus-magingus where they [tech tech tech] a spine transplant or something.  A criticism that Ron Moore has had of the Trek universe is that oftentimes they will out-tech the situation.  Here, again to the show's credit, they don't: the spinal laser scan re-make-ify doesn't work, and Worf dies.  That is to say that the new spine is working great, but because a "dramatic countdown until brain death" counts all the way down, Worf dies.  Literally.

Then we get the skies opening (figuratively) and boom, right after the teary-eyed "We did all we could" scene, the "Son, your father is dead" scene and the "I wanna see my Daddy!" scene, Worf comes back to life.  Why?  That redundant system, it must have a redundant neural pathway that lets the brain restart!  I guess he also had a redundant lung, because with his brain down, he hasn't been breathing for a while either.

Clear-cut deus ex machina.  They couldn't not take the surgery all the way; then it would have just been tech to save the day.  So they went one step further: Zeus/nature/genetics/mysteries of alien medicine, that's what saved the day.

Boo hiss.  Don't the writers know that the "god" in the "god in the machine" has become hackneyed and lousy?  That it's turned into the devil of writing?

Hey, at least we had a salient debate about the pros and cons of end-of-life care... right?

Monday, November 18, 2013

Be The Wyld Stallyn

...and party on, dude!
Film, at its greatest, is not merely a series of pictures in motion; no, it is all.  It can capture life, death, love, hate, the highest highs, and the lowest lows.  When the lights of a theater dim, there is an expectant moment in the darkness where anything--everything--is possible.  Thus, it is in film that we can look to a pair of unlikely heroes, whose journey teaches us not only to strive to the best of our virtues, but to be better human beings.

I speak of course of William S. Preston, Esq, and Theodore Logan, two characters of cinema who are synonymous with the well-earned title The Great Ones.  They inhabit a film which acts as a modern-day fairytale through which a new degree of human sympathy and understanding might be achieved.  I speak of course of Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure.

Excellent it is indeed, for in addition to serving as a primer for Western Civilization, it also reminds us of a virtue held in common by Jesus Christ, the Prophet Mohammad, Moses the Teacher, and Gautama Buddha: that of being common.  Bill and Ted do sip from the proverbial cup of a carpenter, being mistaken for drifty misanthropes particular to Cannabis sativa.  This is not the case, as it is revealed to them by the prophetic Rufus that the music of their band, the Wyld Stallyns, will be the core of a transformatiive philosophic shift in humanity towards peace and understanding.

The central tenet of this philosophy is, we are told, "be excellent to each other." Is this not the basic idea of all philosophy?  Is it not true that, if we all were to follow but this simple phrase for one day, it would be the greatest day of humanity?

Monday, November 11, 2013

Holli Would... But She Shouldn't

Go on, look closer.  Mee-oww!
It was the early spring of 1992, and on the back of every--and I mean every--comic book that made its was through my house had the exact same back cover advertisement.  "Holli Would If She Could," it read.  The message was clear: something seedy, something dark, something sensual.  The things we heard about in health class. 

That Cool World would unquestionably be the greatest thing EVER was just taken for granted.  That, at 12 years old, I'd unquestionably have to wait until it appeared at Prime Time Video that fall--at the earliest--was also taken for granted.  I mean, look at that poster!  You don't have to be Desmond Morris to decode the innate sexuality of Holli in that poster; nor do you have to be Joseph Campbell to decode the setting (snakes show danger, the door behind her is her "entrance," and so forth). 

Indeed, it was so simply known that the movie was the sort of thing that one watched alone that, when in July of that year my brother shystered my parents into taking him and a friend to the movie, buying tickets, getting them into the theater, then going away, I promptly torpedoed it by grabbing a comic, confronting my parents in the hall, and showing them the tagline.  "Holli would if she could," I said.  "They aren't talking about going to a party."  My brother was crushed.

It was years later when I finally sat down to watch Cool World.  Those of us who have been to even one wedding have likely heard the reading about "setting aside childish things."  Whenever I did see the film, it was with vague interest.  I was then living in the world of the Internet.  The true sense of titillation was gone... but still, I sat down feeling like it was almost forbidden.

The perfect first library!
The first thing that strikes you is that the film is by Ralph Bakshi... of The Hobbit animated film.  I have fond memories of going to see The Hobbit when I was 3 or 4.  I had a front row seat at the Point Pleasant Beach brand of the Ocean County Library.  A converted house, it's a creaky, warm, lovely little building, the perfect place to see literature on film. 

But back to Cool World.  The second thing that strikes you is that it's much more... animated than the poster suggested.  It isn't Jessica Rabbit animation, it's mostly Roger Rabbit goofiness.  At least, until Holli appears. 
I've never liked rotoscoping.  I think there's something unnatural about how natural it looks--animation can extend itself to the little nooks and crannies of its imagined physical world, with stretch and squash being prime examples.  To see Holli appear, bosom a-wobbling, butt a-shaking, it was all wonderfully gelatinous... but also so tethered to earth.  

Think again of Jessica rabbit.  Her figure literally would kill a human.  Add to that an intentional unnatural bounce (her breasts bounce up when they should boune down, and visa versa).  That's the stuff of untethered animation. 

Yet as sultry as Jessica Rabbit is, I think the two clips capture something about subtlety, and certainly sexuality.  Jessica is all about the slow sizzle, the long play before, and ultimately has a sense of girl power.  Let's not forget that she almost kisses Eddie Valliant, before "backing off." Heard at 1:54 in the clip, just before her final sung word, is the quiet grunt of a man off screen.  It isn't the sound of completion--it's the sound of stopping right before.

Holli, on the other hand, is not subtle.  She's clearly a tease to Gabriel Byrne's character (who, ironically, is the most artificial-looking thing in the scene).  She clearly isn't far from screwing or stripping for a reason.  Were she a real person, she would unquestionably have had a long stretch of time in foster homes with men like Kate's father from LOST. (Jessica, on the other hand, was probably did what Kate did more than once in her life.)

Ultimately, Holli is the perfect metaphor for what makes Cool World unwatchable tripe: no sense of of the subtle or sublime.  Every shot of animation is leeringly goofy, when not overwrought with the visual smell of sex-and-candy.  The set production, when not animated, try to cross a visual style between real and animated.  It's like trying to mix a tiger and a lion.  What you get isn't either, and isn't pretty.  As noted, even the acting from real-life, pretty good actors is awful!  

Bizarre character choices.  Wooden acting.  Idiotic story.  And a box office failure.

Holli, it seems, simply shouldn't have tried.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Remember it, Jake. It's "Chinatown."

Roman Polanski is an awful human being.

One needs to say that ahead of any other reference to Roman Polanski, if only to establish a) knowledge of his insidious crime, and b) that we all agree his crime was unquestionably vile.  (I will add that the HBO documentary Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired does reveal that his trial was a literally scripted at times by the headline-seeking judge.  This does not discount that Roman Polanski is an awful human being.)

At any rate, now that I've established that we all agree that Polanski's personal decisions were horrendous, I'll mention another name.

Jack Nicholson.

I'll just repeat at this point that Roman Polanski is an awful human being, because when one mentions Polanski and Nicholson together, it tends to be a reminder that Polanski's wretched crime was perpetrated at Nicholson's house, with the latter not being anywhere near there.

Now that we've really established the awfulness, let's focus on a cinematic masterpiece that resulted in a collaboration of Polanski directing and Nicholson acting.

J. J. Gittes after the knife scene
1974's Chinatown is a movie that I've loved since I first saw it, which was probably around 1999.  Inspired to learn more about the then-new-to-me genre of film noir by Dark City and its amazing commentary track by Roger Ebert (who called it one of the year's top ten films), I scoured the library and local rental establishments (all of the latter being gone now) for more examples of this most-wonderful slice of film.

Chinatown has all that makes film noir great: a murky world, half-known motivations, a damsel in distress... or is she a femme fatale?  As the film opens, Nicholson's Jake Gittes is wrapping up another private eye case of... snapping pictures of a cheating wife.  (The husband is played by Rocky's Paulie.) His next case is more of the same: Mrs. Evelyn Mulwray hires him to take dirty pictures of her naughty husband.  Gittes does, and Mr. Mulwray, who works for the LA Department of Water and Power, is caught and humiliated in the papers.

Then the real Mrs. Evelyn Mulwray confronts Gittes, and we see through his eyes the slow descent into the relatively real-life murky world of politics and power in 1937 Los Angeles.  To be a bit more specific, it's the world of water rights--a drought is on, but it seems the water department is part of a conspiracy.  I'm sure you're reading this saying, "Wow, water rights?  Yeeehaw!" The investigation into the water department, while largely reflecting the real LA of the first part of the 20th Century, is merely a backbone for Gittes to investigate those who are behind it.  As an example, a proposal for a sequel to the film would have had Gittes investigating the conspiracy to end public transportation in LA--a story precisely recycled in Who Framed Roger Rabbit.  The analogy is that Roger Rabbit isn't "about" the Cloverleaf conspiracy, but rather the world that the conspiracy takes place in... just like Chinatown.

What makes this film so compelling is the film noir framework in which Polanski so masterfully operates.  Gittes, the quasi-stereotypical film noir gumshoe detective is unphased by the violence around him, as well as the increasing threat to him as he probes deeper and deeper into the powerful people of the city.  When Polanski isn't filming in perfect 1930s locations--every car, every prop, every costume as we imagine it should be--then he is taking us into nighttime shadows, unanswered questions, little clues which gnaw at us only when they need to.  Polanski wisely tells the story from the point of view of Gittes--we learn every clue just as he does, and when Gittes is knocked unconscious at the end of a rather remarkable chase scene in an orange grove (Nicholson appears to actually be driving with the camera in the back seat, speeding between lines of trees, throwing the car into reverse, and gunning it), the camera fades to black.

Polanski, ironically, doesn't play a nice guy.
Chinatown also has a moment that I usually fast-forward through: Gittes, confronted by thugs who are on to him, has a switchblade stuck up his nose.  Polanski plays the thug with a knife--and slices.  Gittes spends the next chunk of the film with slowly diminishing bandages on his face, until it's just stitches.  At any rate, it's horrifying.

For the uninitiated, the title refers to Gittes' time as a cop in LA's Chinatown where, it is said, one tried to do very little.  This is because language and cultural barriers oftentimes meant that the "normal rules" didn't apply.

I won't spoil the ending for you, other than to say that the happy ending was rejected soundly.  It ends like a punch to the gut: hard, harsh, complete.  Suffice it to say that the final appearance of the character of Noah Cross (you'll thank me that I haven't explained more about him) is cringe-worthy, and for all the wrong reasons.

We also learn that it isn't just among lowly Chinese immigrants in 1930s LA that the "normal rules" don't apply.  Sometimes it's for those at the other end of the spectrum--sometimes the ones at the very top win.  Sometimes they win easily, and with little fuss... despite some private eye nosing around.

"Forget it, Jake.  It's Chinatown."

Monday, October 28, 2013

Yub Nub: Celebrate The Love!

Any story that will last is about "us." Regardless of race, gender, creed, time, or place, the stories that we tell approach universality.  David and Goliath can be inspiration for a middle school girl being bullied at school, and King Kong and Ann can remind of the wordless joy that is being in love.  The same is true for any coming of age story: the best ones transport us back to a time and place where we were starting to become an adult, with the world starting to look larger with trepidation and smaller with confidence.

Joseph Campbell, the vaunted American mythologist, even has his intellectual DNA in the greatest coming of age story of our time.  George Lucas has said "I modified my next draft [of Star Wars] according to what I'd been learning about classical motifs" from Campbell's Hero With A Thousand Faces. (Those so interested can read more here.)  To boil the weighty, deep, and luxurious (original) Star Wars Trilogy to its barest of bones, boyish Luke Skywalker is pushed into manhood by circumstances outside his control; he must confront loneliness, arrogance, love, fear, and self-determination to become a man.  In the trilogy, we see him grow from whiny white-clad farmboy to confident black-clad monastic warrior.  It is, for us, a mythic yet vaguely universal path from childhood to adulthood, from wobbly immaturity to stable adulthood.

Except for the damn yub nub.
The Audacity of Yub-Hope

Return of the Jedi, which sees Luke attaining the mantle of adulthood, ends, of course, with adults partying with walking teddy bears.  In its original release, everyone sits around, sings "yub nub," has an Ewokian barbeque (hold the Solo, thanks), and pats themselves on the back for toppling the Imperial government.  To be fair, the Special Edition does intercut freedom celebrations from across the now-former-Empire, including the iconic toppling of Palpatine's statue on Coruscant.  

Yet... there we are... manly Luke, having made peace with the ghosts of his past (literally), able to now step into the world with proper knowledge of all that is around him (no more kissing the future Mrs. Solo, alas).... and he's hanging with midgets stuffed into stuffed animals.  

Now I know, the Ewoks are the Lucasian analogy to the Vietnamese, who by local knowledge and earthy determination turned aside the imperialist Americans.  They are meant to remind us that even the least likely of peoples has in them the desire for self-determination and freedom, the audacity of hope.  

Does Lucas portend what comes after the highest heights of manhood?  Does the ending of Jedi foretell of some second act of adulthood?  Many marriage ceremonies refer to 1 Corinthians, which speaks of giving up childish things.  Did the Lucas of the early 1980s, his family falling apart through divorce of his wife and split custody of their daughter, wonder if the heights of manhood pass all too soon, that childish things must be embraced again?  (Is that what caused Howard the Duck?!?!)

Or perhaps it is just sloppy storytelling, the product of a man defined by Star Wars, leaving it behind him, forever and ever, amen (or not).  Think of all the iconic images of the original Star Wars Trilogy: the giant Star Destroyer, twin suns, Darth Vader, the Death Star, X-Wings, the Millennium Falcon, Hoth, lightsabers, Bespin, "I know," Jabba's Palace, walkers... and we are left with teddy bears muppets that sing?  

Order me all you want, Mr. Lucas, for I cannot "celebrate the love (celebrate the love)." All I can do, with jaw set and foul words upon my breath, is moanfully utter the two words that most soil Star Wars.

Yub Nub.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Whose Prime Directive?

An oft-used bit of Star Trek legalese is the Prime Directive, which states that Starfleet must not interfere with the social order of any non-Federation planet.  Also known as Starfleet General Order One, it is, behind the scenes, a writers tool which prevents the franchise from beaming down a small army and taking over all because the captain's beagle was lost on the planet's surface.  It also reflects a certain enlightened perspective of the show--that "we" (America, the West, and so forth) do not impress our important but self-held and ultimately local values upon a different culture.  (Alas, George W. Bush, that you weren't a Trek fan!)  In the course of the franchise, it also allowed various Starfleet personnel to interact and preserve new life forms and new civilizations.

Timicin and Lwaxana
However, an interesting comment has made me wonder as to the scope of the Prime Directive.  In Star Trek: The Next Generation's "Half a Life," the guest-alien Dr. Timicin is a respected scientist from his world who, it is revealed, has reached the age of 60.  At that age, on his world, one says goodbye to his or her family and friends then commits ritual suicide.  As the episode touches upon the heady ideas of elder care and family obligations, the indefatigable Lwaxana Troi rails against the practice, despite all Starfleet officers agreeing personally but refusing to intercede due to the Prime Directive.  At one moment, when told she cannot beam down to the surface to raise cain, she states to her Starfleet officer daughter, "It's your Prime Directive, not mine!"

Hence, I leave myself wondering to whom the Prime Directive applies.  Yes, it has been defined as a Starfleet-only rule.  Does this mean that Joe the Trader, in the 24th Century equivalent of an 18 wheeler, has full access to find himself on some armpit planet and rule it like a king?  Or to impose preferential eugenics like that seen from the people of Cheron?

Star Trek is, above all else, about optimism in the human condition.  That optimism is usually the first thing presented, sometimes to the fault of the franchise.  Thus we rarely see the seedy underbelly of the Federation; such things are not part of Gene Roddenberry's view of the future.  Yet with Lwaxana's simple statement--"it is your Prime Directive, not mine!"--I must wonder what future an unscrupulous (or unscrupulously principled?) Federation citizen might make in some quiet corner of the galaxy with a world and indigenous culture to make all their own.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Zounds!: Batman and Shakespeare

Pitiable Modern Sensibilities and Thus the Limitations Placed Upon Twenty-First Century Analysis of Shakespeare;
or, How Batman and Robin Enter Into Four Plays by The Master

            Irrepressibly, irresistibly, to consider in any context the phrase “sidekick,” I must do so through the sum of my experiences.  In a general sense, of course, the timeless function of a secondary sidekick to a primary character remains the same: the sidekick aides, shapes, assists, and “has the back,” as modern parlance puts it, of the primary character.  Modern parlance indeed, for it is the modern world that has shaped the understanding of sidekicks to not only myself but to generations.  For this modern and lost world I cannot apologize, for I did not make it; I am simply the small product of its indifferent values.  Alas then, my notion of the ideal sidekick aiding the ideal chief must then be that of the Boy Wonder supporting the Dark Knight.  How awful indeed that I must be bound by a culture so dead that pulpy paperbacks might have so skewed what once was a pure and promising mind.  Having no other route to take, I must then try and find a heady (which is to say “of the mind,” not capricious or giddy) route by which two Caped Crusaders might lead me to something larger, stuff of proper intellectual reflection.  How then does my ideal sidekick act?  First one must acknowledge who these two really are.  By this, I mean not to explore some silly back story about a murder of a millionaire and his wife, a murder that leaves a vengeful boy to grow into a man and fight crime under cape and cowl aided by a young orphaned trapeze artist; no, instead, I mean to delve into the larger facet of life that these two, in circumstances that we can understand, operate in.  By virtue of the fact that the elder has taken custodianship of the younger, both are now of the same social and economic class.  If any worthwhile side to the Dynamic Duo can be pondered, it is that their evolution by many hands has allowed for a shaping that higher, nay, better works do not experience.  Envisioned to initially be a simple arrangement that would allow for the senior detective to wonder aloud, explain, and elucidate, the presence of a sidekick has evolved into a relationship that, as pitiable and trite popular culture, has so flowed with that culture.  From a mere “boss and sidekick” situation, the two have been shown to include the junior being hot-headed to his detriment (indeed, to his shocking death), disagreement concerning personal versus professional directions, and even the dispelling of dubious airs of homosexuality.  (This last part came as an issue as the text, pulpy as it may be, made the sorry and sadly obligatory popular-culture jump to television; the addition of an elderly aunt character to the household was meant to divert thoughts that the detective and his charge were close beyond what age and, at the time, social barriers might permit.)

           Finally then, the question must be asked: is there any value in this sidekick arrangement by which those that should know better dress up as flying mammals and use their wits and lovely gadgets to sidestep the law enforcement processes and fight law-breaking through vigilantism?  Perhaps, and the key just might be the many hands that have crafted these flash-in-the-pan heroes.  With so many minds having had small impacts in the direction of the myth, if one might dare compliment the Dynamic Duo by calling their collective stories “myth,” it might be assumed that some cultural tendencies have been imprinted.  Further, looking back to the true and lasting pillars of culture, cultural tendencies might emerge that would allow this meager writer a means to take the chaff so as to find the true and golden wheat.  Timorously then, I turn to Shakespeare, that his works might give me guidance.

            It seems to me to be a logical stepping stone to move from pulp publications so often to be thought the stuff of teenagers to Shakespeare’s tragedy about teenagers, Romeo and Juliet.  (Indeed, I would argue that for all of its conventional flaws, creative missteps, and lackluster critical acclaim, it is because Shakespeare captures the universality of that age that the play finds itself beloved in the heart above the mind.)  Romeo and his sidekick Mercutio have, for all intents and purposes, a traditional “boss and sidekick” relationship.  Never is there any question that Romeo is the superior in rank, social status, wealth, prestige, power, and the like.  Thus, being in his circle a leader (and logically supposed to be the future leader of his family after his father’s passing), Mercutio acts as his attack dog that is a station beneath his master.  This is not to suggest that where Romeo might be nobility, Mercutio is middle-class; rather, within the same larger class setting, one is superior to the other (rather like the arrangement that our caped friends from above have).  Where some hypothetical romance-free Romeo surely is a man of action, a man who can do battle, as well as a man of thoughts, Mercutio is more so a brother-in-arms, a rowdy manly-man whose testosteronic thoughts of action come before acts of contemplation.  This is immediately evident when, in the fourth scene of the second act Mercutio says that Tybalt is “the / courageous captain of compliments” who fights not just with studied stiffness (20-21) but with the airy conceit of one who is “antic, lisping, [and] affecting” (28).  In short, as the “attack dog” for the presumably normally somewhat-intellectual Romeo, Mercutio despises Tybalt not only along lines of conflict (previous wrongs, age-old familial differences, and so forth), but along lines of intellect: Mercutio, the loyal sidekick, hates everything about his master’s enemy.  This line of thinking continues in act III scene i when Tybalt et al confront (and eventually fight) Romeo, Mercutio, et al.  Tybalt respectfully and elegantly states “Gentlemen, good den, a word with one of you” (38) to which Mercutio bitingly responds “And but one word with one of us?  Couple it / with something, make it a word and a blow” (39-40).  Yet Mercutio’s role is not merely one of us-versus-them aggression: he exists also to reinforce his superior when Romeo falters in the role of being himself.  Seeing Romeo’s heartbrokenness having been fixed (albeit by hidden romance), Mercutio cordially reinforces Romeo’s stolid masculinity by saying “why, is not this better now than groaning / for love? Now art thou sociable, now art thou Romeo” (emphasis mine, 88-90).  Lastly, it is Mercutio’s role as sidekick to be the “point man” concerning access to his master.  When the Nurse comes to speak with Romeo, clearly bearing neither ill will nor weapons, Mercutio begins by verbally attacking her once she asks for her fan to cool her face, saying “hide her face, for her fan’s / the fairer face” (II.iv.107-108); similarly, as she is leaving he further insults her by announcing her “a bawd, a bawd, a bawd!” (129) before continuing the thought in song.  The very great sense that one gets concerning Mercutio is that without Romeo, the former would hardly be a substantial person; certainly, there is little to make the character palatable without the star of the play.

            Perhaps the same could be said for the substance that makes up Celia in As You Like It.  To my mind, while much is interesting concerning Celia as sidekick to Rosalind, the former is again a character that might do poorly if given her own spin-off venue.  Theirs is a relationship which is clearly Rosalind-centered, as opposed to a balanced relationship.  (Here is as good a place as any to note the common thread that romantic and/or sexual pairings between Rosalind and Celia, and Bruce Wayne and Dick Grayson, have be leveled; logic and close readings of intent naturally show these concerns to be unfounded).  What places Rosalind as superior is, in fact, nature itself.  She is the daughter of the deposed Duke Senior; Celia is the daughter of the self-imposed Duke Frederick.  In keeping with the notions of the time, such a deposition was contrary to the plans of God (specifically divine placement of royalty) and thus nature.  There are whole scenes where I feel sympathetic for any actress who might play Celia, for she spends so much time on stage to deliver so few lines.  Yet it is her presence, indeed her lack of lines relative to Rosalind, which makes her such a wonderful sidekick.  Despite the aggressive and terrible state of homeland politics, Rosalind’s dominant personality which so outshines her cousin shows Celia’s dedication to the natural way of things; despite usurpations, Celia seems to nonetheless sense that she is still second fiddle to her cousin.  Her devotion is further shown by the masquerade that the two undertake, Rosalind as the male Ganymed and Celia as the female companion Aliena.  Though, from a scriptwriting point of view, it can be argued that two have two women disguised as men might become unwieldy, or unwise, if one looks at the play as more or less a functioning reality then it seems Celia is missing out on a great deal of fun.  But she does not protest, for as the ardent sidekick she seems more than happy to follow the lead of her superior.  By protecting the natural order of things, Celia is perhaps the most manageable sidekick in the four works here explored, for she does her job quietly and happily.

            Of course, for one to be a sidekick one must know one’s role--it simply goes with the territory.  Such is true of York as the sidekick to the title character in Richard II, yet York’s role is slightly different than those who have been previously explored here.  York’s role in many ways is to serve England, despite in some general, lackey-like way of being King Richard’s compatriot.  Perhaps, in some greater sense, York’s dedication to “underprop [Richard’s] land” (II.ii.83) is a dedication to that which Richard would have wanted, or perhaps dedication the memory of the ideal Richard, before the darker times.  Yet to my mind, such is not the case.  Richard, sidekick though he may be, is one of those who we might call “the man behind the man,” the type of person who behind closed doors oils the creaky gears of an outwardly well-working leader.  Modern words might term him a “career politician” in the best sense, if such words can fit such aged nobility.  I do not mean to suggest that York is a heartless minion; it should not be forgotten that the king is his nephew.  York is certainly not heartless to the changes that are transforming around him.  When Northumberland calls the king merely “Richard” (III.iii.6), for the reason (which I do not particularly question) that he did it “only to be brief” (III.iii.10), York is quick to chastise the mistake despite the present and future power advantage that Northumberland enjoys:
“It would beseem the Lord Northumberland / To say King Richard.          
   Alack the heavy day / When such a sacred king should hide his       
     head!” (III.iii.7-9) for all to recently, Northumberland is told,
                        “the time hath been,
                        Would you have been so brief with him, he would
                        Have been so brief with you to shorten you,
                        for taking so the head, your whole head’s length.” (III.iii.11-14)
Yet, despite such spirited and touching dedication, York is ultimately dedicated to the kingly institution over the specific king.  Richard, despite all of his lyrical reasoning, asks the question “To do what service am I sent for hither” (IV.i.176), and it is York, his cousin, viceroy, friend, and, on some level, sidekick who tells him:
                        To do that office of thine won good will
                        Which tired majest did make thee offer:
                        The resignation of thy state and crown
                        To Henry Bullingbrook.  (IV.i.177-180)
Here, he is cool, crisp, and to the point.  Surely some, no dobt tainted by modern pulpish melodrama, would prefer York to stand as Mercutio and throw his arms around his beloved king and act the perfect sidekick.  Yet Shakespeare, in infinite wisdom (and, no doubt, historic interests), makes York not of the stuff of comic maidens or tragic teenagers; no, he is a man who, after an age as “sidekick to the king” turns out to be a real and well-shaped man.

            Alas that all of Shakespeare’s wonderful sidekicks cannot be men, which is to say human.  Indeed, the argument which follows might be criticized by righteous minds as being inauthentic from the start, but, alas, as stated before I can do no better than the pitiable comic circumstances that I was inundated in as a boy.  To say that, in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Puck is the sidekick to Oberon seems, on the surface, a flawed premise.  Surely one might say that it cannot be supposed that the lowly and bumbling Puck is of the same class as Oberon!  Yet to me, they are; being all fairies with powers beyond those of mortal men, the difference between, presumably, the latter born into privilege and the former being chosen to work at his side, seems minimal.  (Indeed, I am reminded how the Caped Crusader was born into privilege and how the Boy Wonder was chosen to work at his side.)  Differently, while if we took Oberon and Puck and made them human they clearly would be of different classes, can the wonders of the ether-world really stand to the reason of mere humans?  At any rate, the sum of my words grows long.  Puck is a very different kind of sidekick, one who exists to “jest to Oberon and make him smile” (II.i.44).  He knows his place; he is not one to shout out and make judgments concerning his master, as Mercutio did to Romeo’s face and York did out of earshot of his king.  Take as an example the very end of act II scene ii (indeed, this example is typical of many scenes shared by Puck and Oberon).  The stage directions between lines 246 and 247 read “Enter Puck,” who answers a question put to him by saying “Ay, there it is” (248).  Then he is silent for nearly twenty lines as Oberon talks; Puck responds “fear not, my lord! Your servant shall do so” (268), upon which the scene ends.  Such is not class different, for such magical folk are so very different from us; instead, this is a sidekick in the vein of Celia, a sidekick spending time being silent around the naturally superior superior.  Bumbling though he may be (his comic “negligence” (III.ii.345) and “knaveries” (III.ii.346) are without question), he is as loyal and caring as any other sidekick here explored.

            To some, the relation between Batman and Robin to these four plays might seem daring, a cunning feat of bravery against all odds, and a risky move.  Yet the relation is merely the fact of decay in a spoiled culture.  Apologize though I wish I could for the limitations placed upon me, I am what I am and this wordy work stands as it does, a testament to the commonalities of culture across hundreds of years.  That Shakespeare and his plays are the infinite superior of Bob Kane et al and their comic books is not questioned; that the two are hardly connected is not questioned; yet my attempt has been to show a mere shadow of connection, and “if [these] shadows have offended / Think but this, and all is mended” for “this weak and idle theme, / no more yielding but a dream, / Gentles, do not reprehend” (Midsummer Night’s Dream, V.i.424-425,427-429).

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Girl Visits Comic Con (A Cautionary Fiction)

Rachel had always been a unique sort: active in two sports in middle school and high school; great grades, and at a fantastic college to boot; but nonetheless into the nerdiest of things. For her birthday, she was adamant that she had a Counselor Troi cake--with the internal consistency of Star Trek: The Next Generation's cellar peptide dream cake.  (She briefly considered asking for Riker brain shakes to pair with the dessert, but wisely decided against it.)  For Christmas in 2007, Rachel was floored to receive an autographed 8x10 of Ernie Hudson in full Ghostbuster regalia; it was signed "Bustin makes me feel good!  --Ernie!"  (No one was quite clear why the esteemed actor signed with an exclamation point after his name, though it was generally assumed by Rachel's parents that Mr. Hudson was simply happy to be doing something.)

     Rachel even had been to a few local comic cons as a young adult.  It started with a particularly sad affair at the Manahawkin Holiday Inn, where diabetics and pre-diabetics sat in a room hawking old Phantom Lady comics and pewter hardly-collectable B-wings.  Things picked up from there, with one highlight being seeing the original Boomer from the original Battlestar Galactica.  He was older now, smelling of the unique scent of lima beans kept in three-day-old orange rinds, but Rachel didn't care.  She had long ago resigned herself to the fact that her pop culture interests were set in a fading past.  And she loved it all.

The great goal, though, was always Comic Con--the Comic Con, in New York.  There was, in Rachel's twenty-second year, a fortuitous set of events which finally sent her off to that great nerdatorium in the west.  First, her maternal great-uncle died; though she hardly remembered the man, he had remembered her to the tune of $4,000 in his will.  Second, she had just paid off her 8 year old Toyota Yaris, and thus felt unencumbered to spell the newfound money a bit frivolously. Third, the money came through, with a cosmic sort of flare, the very morning before Comic Con registration began.  Rachel took at as her twin suns moment: surely there were college bills to pay, but those would have been covered by her job waiting tables at the local Shennanigans.  It was time to fire into the proverbial exhaust port, and go for it.

The force indeed was with her: the four day pass was obtained, as was a moderately overpriced hotel room within walking distance.  But that was not all, of course.  Though every comic con of every size has inhabitants who dress in form-fitting latex and the sort (whether their bodies can handle such a challenge or not), this was the big time, and Rachel's physique was more than up to the task.

For her, the answer was easy.  After all, there is only one female role model in all of geekdom who has demonstrated courage under fire, smarts, grace, wit, and beauty--one who was both noble and common at the same time.  And thus there was really only one costume for Rachel to wear.  She bought the best, wanting to make an impression with both her youthful exuberance for science fiction and lithe body... and after all, there was still a little of late, Great Uncle Patrick's money left.

Thus it was that, on Rachel's first day at New York Comic Con, she stepped into one of the changing rooms near Hall Q.  She was a bit nervous--one rarely dresses in such a way, though she was buoyed by seeing a Jango Fett, a Captain Picard with hair, and one very impressive Poison Ivy.

Thus it was that Rachel stepped forth onto the convention floor, wearing her (supposedly) originally-conceived costume idea of Slave Leia.

"Crud!" she exclaimed, surveying the floor.

Rachel had always thought herself a unique sort, which usually she was--though unfortunately, at Comic Con, Slave Leias are a dime a dozen.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Sadness, Drive, Loss: On the Death of Steve Jobs

It's a small article on entitled "For Jobs's Biological Father, the Reunion Never Came."  The article doesn't really have much to add beyond the headline.  Yes, it has the proper journalistic details, but I nonetheless couldn't help but feel a profound sense of sadness from reading it.

It's common knowledge that Steve Jobs was born out of wedlock; that his birth parents later married and produced a sister; that Jobs grew up in the happy home of his adoptive parents; and somewhere around the time when he (briefly) went to college, his incredible drive started to meet the world at large, culminating in: Apple, his ousting, forming NeXT, buying Pixar, returning to Apple....

The WSJ article isn't the first one I've read in the last two years or so about "the biological father," Abdulfattah "John" Jandali.  Details are vague, or contradictory, but he started reaching out to his son in the last few years of Jobs' life, apparently via email.  The Apple camp says there never was a response; Jandali says he would occasionally hear back with a thank you or other very short answers that were typical of how Jobs emailed outsiders.

I just find it all so incredibly sad.  I grew up with both biological parents who have remained married; I am married and have a child.  I can only imagine what it is like for an adopted child to find out that they were adopted--that someone fundamentally did not want them.  Now, I know, oftentimes an adoption grows out of larger issues, and that oftentimes the mother sees giving the child up for adoption as the best choice for the welfare of the child.  I don't dispute any of that--nor does it take away from the tremendous joy that parents-to-be can have when choosing to be adoptive parents.

But still... certainly there is a point where the child, at two or five or ten or twenty, feels some sense of abandonment.  I grew up with a girl named Amanda, who was in the same grade and lived on the same block.  She was a normal kid, like everyone on the street.  Her mother (the one who adopted her; to my mind, you care for 'em, they're yours) was a normal mom, and the mother's boyfriend or husband was a nice Canadian guy who, whether boyfriend or husband, was always around and always nice.  Nonetheless, I can distinctly remember being in class with Amanda (in Mrs. Long's 6th grade language arts class) when, in response to some sort of question about goals, Amanda said, "I want to go to Columbia to find my birth mother."  There was a piece of her missing.

Was this the case with Steve Jobs?  That this hole in his heart of "not being wanted" contributed to a sense of needing to prove himself against such a cold world?  To be the best Jobs child he could be?  And to do it with a sense of purpose and destiny and drive that he seemed prepared to conquer the world?

I also think too of Mr. Jandali--a father, like me; but unlike me, one who had to say goodbye to his child.  To learn, somehow, at some point, that his own child became this great captain of industry and design and inspiration... and did it all without his father.  What is that sort of regret like?  Enough regret for a father to reach out to a famous son whose email was common knowledge?  To try and make some sort of connection, particularly once learning that the one thing he gave his son--his body, his genes--was profoundly faulty? 

Yet back to Jobs: what is it like to receive that email?  Did he respond to wishes for a happy birthday with "thank you" because he was firing back answers at "the public" who would email him?  Did he know he was talking to his father?  Did he answer out of blind kindness?  Or out of the knowledge of who it was--to give his father an answer, an acknowledgement, but no more?

All questions... none of which, we can imagine, will be answered.  Is there a life lesson?  I don't know.  It's all just a muddy, blurry picture, one of sadness, drive, and loss.

Monday, September 30, 2013

WPIX Saturday Movie Marathon

It is amazing to think how television has changed in the last twenty years or so: the growth of premium channels having original content (can you believe The Sopranos was only the second original drama on HBO?), the spread of quality programs on basic cable (the best generally on FX), and the proliferation of "netlettes."  Where once there were the big three of ABC, CBS, and NBC, now we have the big four (including Fox), as well the CW (itself a hybrid of the now-defunct UPN and WB), and marginally MyNetworkTV (though the Wikipedia page for MNTV explains that it is no longer a network). 

We used to change cable channels with this.
Dial things back twenty years ago (for the younger members in our audience, a dial was a circular tuning device used to change television channels before there were remotes).  In the New York metro area, there were three network stations (channels 2, 4, and 7 for the big three) and a whopping three independent stations (channels 5, 9, and 11).  As a boy of 11 or 12, first starting to see things in the world in a brand new way (ladyfolk I mean, though an appreciation for violence counts too), there was but one destination on the dial/button box/VCR worth sulking away into your room for back-to-back movie badness:  WPIX Channel 11 and it's Saturday Movie Marathons. 

To be clear, this wasn't really lascivious material that they showed.  But when you're of the right age, and the (porn)wold is pre-internet, a Channel 11 movie was the way to go.  The movies tended to be pretty awful.

I vaguely remember one that was either Conan the Barbarian or one of many ripoffs.  The key moment was when a woman clad in a fir bikini was attacked in what probably was a rock quarry.  There was swordplay and many baddies died, but in the end a net was thrown over her and off she went.

Another movie that I do absolutely remember seeing was The Legend of Billie Jean.  I saw that movie from start to finish, seeing how ordinary kids in an ordinary town (hey, like me!) can find themselves up against cruel and evil adults.  Billie Jean ends up cutting her hair and becomes an outlaw symbol of what happens when you push a kid too far, man! 

It was inspiring, monumental, and indeed legendary--at least, at that age, the drivilish crap felt that way.  Billie Jean does get point, though, for being a source pre-Simpsons employment for Yeardley Smith, to whose name I won't attach a link, because you know who she is.  She played a young character, perhaps a few years older than my own tender age at the time.  After some moment of violence directed towards the kids in a car, everyone is checked for injuries.  All appear fine from whatever had ailed them (gunfire, perhaps?), but then Yeardley discovers blood!  In a moment played for both knowing comedy and coming-of-age, the erstwhile girlish Billie Jean (now inspiring outlaw lady) explains that Yeardley's character has now started... the menses.

As you can see, Channel 11 revealed the mysteries of the universe to me.  Strictly speaking, WPIX Channel 11 doesn't exist anymore: the 1980s and early 1990s saw its ratings fall to 6th (of 6) in New York City, and the slide was compounded by the rise of WYNC becoming Fox 5 once that network launched, as well as the departure of the Yankees to basic cable.  That made "Channel 11" ready for a change, and when the WB netlette launched, gone was Channel 11, replaced by WB 11; more recently, it's become CW 11.  I suppose they show better fare since becoming the New York flagship for those little networks that could, and I suppose too that crappy movies are a-plenty between all the basic and pay cable options.

But still... I miss the safe, secure knowledge that on a Saturday such as this, with cold rain falling from a gray sky, I could have, in my boyhood, turned on Channel 11 to see Death Wish 4 (sans the violent parts and language) followed by Far From Home and the promise of seeing Drew Barrymore in a bikini.

Monday, September 23, 2013

"I Can Fly, I Can Fly, I Can Fly!"

Most video games are about something.  It's why we love them, after all: save the princess from Bowser (each game); save the different princess from Gannon (each game); get back home; rule the city; and so forth.  Indeed, in those glorious years of youth, it is the story that makes us love those games: we become Mario, Link, and every other hero.

Yet there is one game of my youth that I loved, one that carried with it such a sense of freedom--of wind whistling by, of cool air all around, of ultimate control--that it was no matter that it was intentionally designed to have little story at all.

Pilotwings, a launch title for the SNES, where players find the joys of flight and the greatest challenge of all: gravity.

As a side note, I had fought, and fought hard, to get SNES the Christmas it came out.  Mom, as opposed to video games as she was MTV, cable television, and too many friends, was my main nemesis for a battle that lasted from the summer until--shockingly--my brother and I were given SNES two days before Christmas because my tightwad parents were also taking us to Disney World for Christmas.  (Ever drive from New Jersey to Florida at 55 mph in a tiny car with parents whose in-drive meals were grapefruit juice and granola?  Joy.)  It was a pretty amazing holiday; never again have I invited friends over before Christmas to play with the single hottest toy on the market that year. 

Obviously Pilotwings is secondary to Super Mario World (still amazing) and The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past (still huge).  But neither game, and few others ever, treated the player so maturely.  Here you go, whispered the game, have a plane.  Fly it.  Crash it if you want--you'll start again.  Go faster, go slower.  Get the points, ignore the points.  Land on the left runway, land on the right runway.  Do what YOU want.

Sure, to be fair, you couldn't move on without hitting a baseline of cumulative point totals.  And moving on was oftentimes worth it.  The level that best suits this topic, that trance-like was the rocketbelt.  (Why they called it that and not a jetpack, I don't know.)  Those levels, particularly the first, were the closest thing that an 11 year old boy in the waning years of Bush 41's presidency could come to the tagline "you'll believe that a man can fly."  Controlling the man, you could shoot straight up, or vector your rockets to move horizontally.  Throw in a few well-timed blasts, and it was easy to fly all around the board.  There even were "bubble pockets," (at least, that's what we called them) which allowed you to land and bounce up again. 

I imagine the game has held up relatively well, but I cannot imagine how many countless hours I had friends over playing Pilotwings.  It was during a certain sweet spot in life, and in video games.  Would an 11 year old play a plot-less, no-shooting, no-collecting, no-story game now?  I doubt it.

I feel privileged, then, to have gotten that SNES for its first Christmas, to have gotten Pilotwings at our local Toys-R-US, and to have spent so much time mesmerized by flying.