Thursday, May 31, 2012

The Rock-afire Explosion (2008)

When Lemons Are An Oil Embargo, Lemonade is a Singing Keyboardist Mechanical Gorilla
by Silence Do_nothing
     The issue which has twisted more knots in the philosophically inclined mind than even Zeno's Paradox itself: Which is greater, an experimental automobile intended to squeeze more miles out of a tank of gas or a band of animatronic, anthropomorphic musicians intended to squeeze a longer visit out of patrons at a family pizzeria and arcade in the early 80s? I learned of the connection between the two from a documentary called The Rock-afire Explosion. Through old footage and contemporary interviews, it details the robotic band, its creator and nostalgia intoxicated fans.
     The oil crisis of the 70s motivated young engineer Aaron Fechter to design a fuel efficient car. He became sidetracked through his other inventions whose sales were intended to help fund the high MPG prototype, which led to a business contact hiring him to work on an electronic shooting gallery with minor animatronic features, which led to Aaron designing his own animatronic characters, which led to them being shown at conventions, which led to his creating the Rock-afire Explosion animatronic band, which led to many children in the 80s enjoying them, which led to some of them developing an obsession into adulthood, which led to at least one them buying a set for his own home, which led to a filmmaker producing a documentary on it, which led to the movie being picked up by Netflix, which led its inclusion on a recommended viewing list for a Netflix user who happened to be a hobbyist writer for this blog, which led to a resurfacing of his warm and fuzzy memories of visiting Showbiz Pizza as a kid, which led to his adding the film to his queue, which led to his viewing it, which led to his post of it, which led to a silly title and this sentence. Hopefully this hasn't led to an exasperated reader thinking "Enough already! We get it. Move on." (In my defense, it's already been established that this text would not have occurred without the oil crisis of the 70s. I am but a saltine cracker crumb in the piping hot tomato soup of geopolitical turmoil.)
     The Rock-afire Explosion looked like cartoon characters brought to the real world. Clothed animals with bold facial gestures stood upright as they sang and bantered among each other. They had names like Mitzi Mozzarela, Billy Bob Brockali and Fatz Geronimo. It was corny, but that never stopped kids’ love of talking animal characters.
     The most vivid memory I have of them involves my habit of focusing on a background character who hadn't moved yet and waiting for the spotlight to shine on it as it joined the others and burst to life. There was something eerie and fun seeing the fast contrast of a lifeless doll transforming into an expressive and boisterous personality.
     Honestly though, my liking for them was secondary to – and probably partly influenced by – my greater fondness for the Showbiz Pizza restaurant/arcade chain they were situated in. This was back when arcade games were light years ahead of home consoles. The coolest thing there for me, at the time, was the Dragon's Lair (1983) laserdisc game (even though gameplay was nearly non-existent). The Rock-afire was a part of the fun atmosphere that permeated Showbiz, but not the primary reason to go there.
     As expected of someone who took on a second job and saved for two years to purchase a set of the performers, a much greater attachment to the artificial band is shown by Chris Thrash, the most prominently featured superfan. He's a genial eccentric whose nostalgia indulgence serves as his stress relief. Chris learned enough of their operation to re-program them to sync up with current songs, performances which he posts to the internet. He explains his pastime as less harmful than that of many others which people use to unwind. I see that as the validation for all innocuous leisure activities which happen to be weird.
     For viewers who would scoff at his hobby for the idea of it alone, its expense compounds their negative impression. How can he waste his money on that? But it's his hard earned money and if he is getting an enjoyment out of it, then it is squandered no more than any other luxury purchase. I have a feeling that buying something like Italian marble would be more acceptable, even if it cost considerably more. I'd rather see someone go Chris' route. That isn't solely my robot chauvinism finding robots cooler than rocks ninety-nine times out of a hundred(although, if I had a financial stake in precious gems, I might think differently).
     People of bad taste have less murky motives than those of good. I don't know if people thought to have good taste indulge in objects of good taste because they find it worthy on its own merit or if they find respect rubs off on them when they go along with respected opinions of what is worthy. It's true that there are those who will favor a thing simply for it being out of favor, but Chris didn't strike me as any contrarian or hipster. There's a certain purity in liking something despite everyone thinking that makes you clueless. Or maybe that's just the delusional consolation from someone who manages to consistently to find himself out of step with both the beautiful people and the sophisticated crowd. But still, imagine how much easier the workday would be borne if you knew that waiting at home for you was the Rock-afire Explosion. "A chicken in every pot, and an animatronic rock band in every living room."
     Critics may point to Chris' behavior as an example of our generation's infantilization. I would counter that perhaps previous generations' youth entertainment wasn't awesome enough to stick with audiences into their adult years in a way which would motivate them to endure the scorn which a continued enjoyment of that entertainment brings (although having read many reprints, the E.C. comics of fifties would be good candidates).
     The movie could have done with added breadth – only a few fans besides Chris were featured, and that was mainly providing general background information on the characters and restaurant. There were questions I wish it would have addressed, such as whether the costs of the Rock-afire significantly contributed to Showbiz's financial woes. These complaints aside, it was still worth the view to get a blast from the past and a peek at two personalities displaying a passion in a weird and wonderful field. It deals with nostalgia, but you don't need to feel nostalgic for the subject to enjoy the film. If anything, lacking it would lead to it appearing even stranger and more fascinating.
     Insofar as a seventy-two minute documentary on animatronic characters from decades past can function as a north star in guiding one in the greener car/singing animal robots conundrum presented at the beginning of the post, I am siding with the latter. The old footage in the movie of Aaron driving his prototype made it look like Rock-afire was the more fruitful path of his engineering talents. The vehicle had such a stripped down flimsy looking frame that it reminded me of the Flintstone's car. Unless you're a really hardcore fan of the Hanna-Barbera show, you can't want that. Although if someone were, and dressed as Fred as he drove such a car to commemorate his happy youth spent watching the cartoon, it would have the potential for good documentary material. Especially if it also had another person in a Great Gazoo costume riding along, insulting him. Just beware that the green body make up doesn't make him sick.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

The Gratitude of Kings (1997)

     I had some knowledge of Thieves' World as early as the mid-1980s.  Probably had something to do with the fact that Chaosium did the RPG for the setting and I was purchasing – more properly, my parents were purchasing at my insistence – ElfQuest RPG materials from the same company at the time.  I don't think I read much more than a couple of excerpts from stories from the world, though.  But it didn't stick enough in my memory for me to be searching out Thieves' World material now.  No, I came to read Marion Zimmer Bradley's The Gratitude of Kings (1997) because it was at the library, looked short, and I found out who Bradley was in reading How to Write Tales of Horror, Fantasy & Science Fiction (1987).  Clearly, I should have known who she was as I was familiar with some of her works (that they exist, not that I read them), but it is never to late to get started.
     While The Gratitude of Kings is officially listed as a short story, I have chosen to treat it as a novella.  First, it has its own stand alone hardcover book.  Second, and more importantly, it would still be close to sixty pages as a trade paperback, which I am willing to accept as being just past my comfort zone for a short story.  This information really only means something to me and how I'm counting what I've read this year, but now you know that there are some internal debates when the material can be judged two different ways.
     Jumping into an established setting with established characters isn't always a pleasant experience, but Bradley has an easy writing style and a comforting sense of humor.  It doesn't feel like she is working at explaining what has gone before while allowing the new reader to know that, yes, much has already happened.  If I have a complaint – and I always do – it would be that Bradley has a fondness of fantasy names that are confounding to pronounce and keep happily in one's mind.  I was thankful when she introduced characters like Princess Velvet and the weredragon, Beauty.  Those are names with which I don't have to struggle, but they still keep the illusion of a functioning fantasy world.
     This story is a rather small one, with a spellcaster answering a King's request to be present at a Royal wedding.  There is a cursed magical instrument, a contest of magical arts, a murder, and the general message that a woman can usually count on a man to get the big picture wrong.  That last part doesn't come across as angry or painting with a broad brush, but specific to the situation and in keeping with the humor of the tale.
     Bradley has much more famous and successful work, but I would suspect that I would be happier with her lighter Thieves' World material.  I could be wrong; that wouldn't be the end of the world.  But at least I do know that I need to make an effort to seek out some more Bradley for next year's Reading Project.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Make Love! The Bruce Campbell Way (2005)

     Make Love! The Bruce Campbell Way (2005) marks Bruce Campbell's first venture into humorous fiction (his first book being a memoir on how a guy from Michigan ended up a B-Movie icon with not a lot of extra money to show for it).  Knowing that Campbell's humor runs not just towards the lowbrow but to the most repetitive slapstick the Three Stooges ever performed, I didn't have high expectations for this.  Sure, Campbell is a literate guy – he has at least been reading scripts in all that time as an actor and director – but I did not expect him to be able to build a compelling narrative without dedicating some serious time to honing this new craft.
     In fact, there is not really much of a plot to Make Love!; it really is composed around a handful of recurring ideas.  Rather than tell the story in a conventional manner, Campbell intersperses his supposedly focal idea – he has been cast as the third major character in an A-list Hollywood movie (filming in New York) – with sketches that really have nothing to do with the story except to show how wacky Campbell's fake life is.  These asides (for the most part) end up being better than the story about Campbell destroying Mike Nichols' movie. 
     The best part of the book – sorry, Bruce – are the worked-up photos and gag visuals.  These were what led me to laugh out loud repeatedly.  Not so much for Campbell being inserted into numerous alternate personae but the fake signs and such.  So much better than the disasters that came out from Jon Stewart (and The Daily Show writers) that one has to wonder if Campbell and Craig "Kif" Sanborn have struck a rare kind of comic gold by working together.
     The only part of the book that I actively didn't like was when Campbell confused Dungeons & Dragons with hide and go seek.  For a guy who has appeared at numerous gaming conventions (and game fairs), and who would be age appropriate for AD&D's heyday, this was a real letdown.  I was also surprised that in his acknowledgements Campbell didn't thank (or even acknowledge) Richard Gere, Renée Zellweger, or Mike Nichols; if one is going to use real people in ficticious situations – like having Gere happily cheat on his wife – that person should probably give them some mention or thanks.
    I don't know that anyone who isn't a fan of Campbell-the-actor who would ever find reason to read this, but it isn't bad.  It just isn't very mature.  Maybe that is part of Campbell's charm, that he can be fake smarmy while retaining his innocent immaturity.  It works, for the most part, here.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Chronicle (2012)

     I am not much for the found footage approach to assembling a movie.  Rarely do I think it serves the story, nor does it do much to cover up when the tactic is employed to hide the smaller budget.  That being said, I am not against its existence.  Much of Chronicle (2012) works because of the lean approach the a found footage take on the story dictates.  Conversely, other than a handful of exceptional visuals, there isn't any real reason for Chronicle  to be anything other than a straight ahead, lower budget (for a studio film) teen actioner.
     There is too much focus on the emotional disconnectivity of Andrew (Dane DeHaan).  Rather than let a few stark examples stand as the emblems of his unhappy existence, writer Max Landis (famous for having a famous father and getting other famous people to appear in his video deconstruction of "The Death of Superman") and director Josh Trank hammer the point home again and again.  Essentially, they are trying to make the would-be school shooter a sympathetic character.  That is probably not a good route to go, and it doesn't help the story here.
     The other glaring problem, imposed by the found footage approach, is that the other characters who appear on screen do not much development.  Trank is forced to resort to cheats – cameras of all sorts are rolling everywhere, sometimes without sound – to keep the story going in a coherent manner.  Sometimes this is done in a mildly clever fashion, such as having Casey (Ashley Hinshaw) wandering about with a camera of her own.  Too often, however, it feels like more of a distraction than a means to become immersed in the story.  Casey is allowed to have some personality because she has a camera, and therefore a point of view.  Matt (Alex Russell) and Steve (Michael B. Jordan) are just somewhat mouthy guys playing at being somebody's (Landis) idea of teenagers, but only as they are seen by others.
     Now, I did actually enjoy Chronicle.  I think it has the best superhero fight ever put on film (and Landis has established his credentials with his comic book geekdom well before this), feeling all the more real because the characters seem to finally be having reasonable emotional reactions (for being teenagers) to what is going on.  I just think that it tries to make the kid who is going to kill everyone because he was bullied/beaten/ostracized the hero – or at the very least the emotional center of the film – before waving a hand and declaring that uncontrollable emotion is bad.  I think this would have been much stronger with a more traditional approach that had a few cut-ins from Andrew's and Casey's cameras rather than pretending that this wasn't an arduously plotted and shot production.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Underworld: Awakening (2012)

     Loud, poorly lit, and clocking in with less than 80 minutes of real movie, Underworld: Awakening (2012) is a prime example of a sequel that comes about not because there is a compelling story to tell in the existent setting but because there is still money to be made from attaching the title to it.  Other than Kate Beckinsale still looking good in the leather outfit and (one would assume) not complaining about the generous amount of wire work necessary for the stunts, I cannot say that there is much going for this movie.  But I could say that about all of the Underworld (2003) movies. 
     Seeing as how I am more than a decade removed from the last time I played or ran a White Wolf Storyteller System game – Vampire: The Masquerade, Werewolf: The Apocalypse, Mage: The Ascension, Wraith: The Oblivion (very under-loved), or Hunter: The Reckoning were the ones I considered worth playing – it should not be surprising that I don't have much passion left for the general high-energy vampire vs. werewolf concept.  These are beings that live quite a long time and can act rationally, but we never get to see clever politicking or subtle manipulation of the enemy.  Everything is machine-pistols, weird swords, unbelievably dangerous (to the user) whips, and bouncing off the walls.
     I remember the first movie at least being consistent within itself and setting up a coherent story.  Then Underworld: Evolution (2006) introduced the problem of geography (just where exactly were these characters?) and relied heavily on the something is after the heroes device to eat up screen time with chases and fights.  I skipped the next film (I guess I really do just want to see Beckinsale in the outfit) because I assumed that by going into the past, it would simply be going over material that the audience already thought they knew enough about.
     The only positive thing I can say about this movie is that it shows that Charles Dance was wasting his talents in The Golden Child (1986), where he was the best actor in the cast.  He again shows that a skilled actor can take over a scene without needing CGI or a tight leather outfit.  Not that I want to bash Beckinsale.  I have seen her act in movies and know that she can do better than this.  I just think Underworld: Awakening offered a better paycheck than Snow Angels (2007).

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Community, Season One (2009-10)

     Now that Dan Harmon is out as the show-runner for Community (2009-present), I thought it would be a moderately decent time to do a sporadic review of the show to date.  Not that there is much interest for such a thing.  Fact of the matter is that those who have a slavish devotion to the show - and Harmon in particular - have already watched all of the episodes multiple times, and those who haven't are much more likely to simply not give a damn about the show at all.  "Community?" I imagine them asking, "Is that the show that is opposite The Big Bang Theory (2007-present)?"  Or maybe they are like Shelly Mazzanoble, and though working in a field where the pop culture references would fit the sensibilities of those who buy and use the products their company makes, chose to watch Dance Moms (2011-present) or any of the Real Housewives (2006-why the fuck does anybody watch these?) series when it comes to DVR viewing.  For whatever reason, Community has not been able to latch on to anything resembling a sizable audience.
     The über-fans have decided that this simply does not matter.  To them, anything successful must be akin to pop music, where pop music simply must be awful.  Sure, lots of pop music is bad.  But on occasion we get gems from the genre.  Like jazz fans, they revel in how cool they must be to like something that is decidedly unpopular.  I am not one of the superfans.  I like the show and make every effort to see it when it is on, but I don't plan my life around it.  I certainly don't place Community on par with sitcom classics such as The Dick Van Dyke Show (1961-66), M*A*S*H (1972-1983), or Cheers (1982-1993).  Some have compared it to Arrested Development (2003-2006; 2013?), but Arrested Development was clearly a much slyer (and unconventional) take on Soap (1977-1981), which was itself a send-up of soap opera overreaches.
     Where Community has become something of a mess, a show dedicated less to delivering coherent stories or building characters through the events of their lives, it didn't really start off that way.  It was, looking at it again, a rather normal sitcom.  It just decided to go with the absolutely insane notion of placing a group of adults (or varying degrees of maturity) into what essentially is a high school setting.  Except, because high school isn't for adults, it became a very challenged community college: Greendale. 
Jeff Winger (McHale) in a prime example of his wardrobe misfires from Season One.
     Since nobody chooses to go to community college (this conceit seems more and more elitist as time wears on and there is no real love for the school emerging), all of the main characters must have done something horrible in their lives.  Jeff Winger (Joel McHale) has cruised through life without having ever been challenged, faking his credentials to get into Law School (where he never had to study), passed the Bar Exam with no listed difficulty, and had a successful career as a lawyer (because, apparently, there is no need to actually be knowledgeable on the subject of the law if one can simply bullshit well enough); this was a weak cheat at the beginning of the show – a sign that Harmon never fully examined the implications of the set-up.  The other students are all there because they are failures rather than frauds (well, many are frauds on some level that doesn't relate to their academic careers).
     Look at me being nowhere near on point.  Community started off as a slightly off-beat sticom that, occasionally, would turn some of the conventions on their respective heads.  But it hadn't become wrapped up in the need to shock and enthrall (some of) the audience with journeys into the absurd.  It had recurring characters who were more than other hapless denizens of the halls, notably John Michael Higgins as Professor Whitman, Lauren Stamile as Professor Slater, John Oliver as Professor Duncan, and Eric Christian Olsen as Vaugh (being more of a denizen of the grassy quad); only one of those characters appears after Season One.  The wacky antics revolved around things at the school because that is where the intersection of the character's lives was.
     Somewhere along the line, in planning for a longer running show than four years (this was always more ambitious than realistic), Harmon decided to move the focus away from the classes, cafeteria,  and the study group's reserved room in the library into their lives.  This became very pronounced in Season Three, and stands in direct contrast to Season One.  No doubt that Harmon, like Keith Olbermann, has gone crazy in part from having people praise his more out there moments.  "Modern Warfare" (episode #23) was the first truly outrageous divergence from reality – it is the first paintball episode.  It works not because it has escaped from any relationship with reality but because it can be viewed as an absurd but logical extension of how things are at Greendale, but only as an exception to the regular shenanigans.  Having been praised for this, Harmon and company went off the rails in Season Three attempting to deliver as many as these type of events as possible.  It makes Season One look divorced from the show by comparison.
Annie (Brie) didn't have much to do but pine for Troy and react to scenes until the writing staff realized she had great chemistry with Jeff – and that came from them watching the episode where they had the two characters kiss (the first time).
     Season One doesn't really find its footing until "Introduction to Statistics" (episode #7), and truthfully only has seven strong episodes during the first twenty five.  Not that many sitcoms charge out of the gate with a great first season.  Part of the problem is that the cast is quite large and it is hard to find screen time for each character.  Strangely, Shirley Bennett (Yvette Nicole Brown) is a much stronger, more interesting character in Season One than in Seasons Two and Three combined.  Annie Edison (Alison Brie) and Troy Barnes (Donald Glover) are largely reactionary characters in Season One, getting only occasional moments to shine whereas they become more relevant to the stories in the last two seasons.  Britta Perry (Gillian Jacobs) was a focal character in Season One, but not with great effect.  The writers reduced her role by making the character a complete and total mess, almost unrecognizable as who she was before.
     What is consistent is the total unnecessary presence of Pierce Hawthorne (Chevy Chase).  I don't blame Chase for this, because he can't do much beyond what he is given to work with, but he should have had some thoughts about how a fat man in his mid-60s doesn't make for compellingly funny broad physical comedy.  Chase was always at his best when he was allowed to be a witty, warm (if befuddled or self-possessed) character struggling with minor inconveniences (see Clark Griswald or Andy Farmer) or putting his wits against devious bad guys (see Irwin Fletcher), but Harmon and company made his character into a nearly completely unsympathetic jackass.  The character feels – from the very beginning – like a compromise forced upon the show by the network.  You want to develop a show?  Put a name character in it.  It seems that Harmon's response was to put one in and then to have no idea what to do with him.
     I used to have this fantasy that if and when Community made it into syndication, some people would see it for the first time and start to get what they were missing.  Now I'm just convinced that when they see Season One, they will be thinking that Community would be a dry, quirky comedy.  If they jumped on board, how would they feel about the show being completely different in the space of ten weeks of viewing?  If they came on board later, how would they feel about the early struggles to define the characters?  I don't know anyone who watched Night Court (1984-1992) who thought that the first two seasons represented what that show was about.  Maybe Season One isn't representative of Harmon's vision for the show, but it is easily more accessible than what the show was during Season Three. 

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

A War of Gifts (2007)

     One of the benefits (for lack of a better term) of reading lots of shorter books is that I don't mind taking a chance on random ones picked up at the library.  Well, not exactly random.  These books tend to comes from the single aisle of Fantasy and Science Fiction – because apparently there is no difference between the two.  To date, this has not been a rewarding way to select reading material in terms of personal satisfaction but it has helped in racking up the titles read.  It also lets me ease my way in to authors who many of my peers are quite familiar (whereas I had retained my ignorance of their works).
     I am going to assume that A War of Gifts (2007) is not a proper introduction into Orson Scott Card's multi-book saga about Ender Wiggins.  It seems like some fleshed out background material that passes as a decent (if short) novella to a neophyte, whereas a person immersed in the larger story would feel that Card is giving many (I assume) of the characters a richer backstory.  I see it – in my admitted ignorance – as a reward for those who have read and loved the previous novels.
     There isn't much science in this Science Fiction story, other than the general setting.  Instead, it places the themes of religion (does it have a role in military exercise?), camaraderie (on what basis is it extended?), and opposition to stifling authority in very common situations by having it be explored by children with little control of their lives.  Sadly, Card doesn't really have much to say on the subjects that stirs too deeply.  Maybe he does in the full-blown novels and simply repeating it here would have been tedious.
     It isn't a bad book.  In fact, I was happy to enjoy it given the disappointments other blind grabs have been.  Card is much more glib that I expected him to be with his dialogue. However, the only characters who come off as not being worthy attention are Ender and Zeck (the nominal main character here).  I am somewhat confidant that I will never get around to reading the rest of the saga, but I have finally (at least) acquainted myself with Card as a writer.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Philosophers in 90 Minutes (Part Four)

     Author Paul Strathern is largely more comfortable writing about philosophers whose contributions fall in the political realm than he is in discussing how Augustine or Aquinas integrated Ancient Greek philosophies into the Christian tradition.  He spends much of Locke in 90 Minutes (1999) not so much discussing (or even mentioning) specific contributions Locke made – using one of the more traditional cop-outs in maintaining that we would only look upon them as common sense" – but in humanizing Locke.  He also does a better than average job of covering the history of the era (considering the brevity of the book).
     At the same time, Strathern takes the time to do some quality English-bashing.  While this is usually tame, he does rise up to show what may be some contempt rather than playfulness in exploring the nature of the English.  See the following example:
           The English have always been very good at being boring,
           and several times in history have emerged for 
           considerable periods as undisputed world masters in the 
           field.  This was one of them.  Under the Puritans all 
           conspicuous signs of enjoyment were banned.  Even 
           Christmas was banned, despite what it celebrated.    
          Citizens were expected to work all day and spend the rest 
          of their time conforming.  Life was given over to Puritan 
          indoctrination, the thought police, informers (on the likes of 
          wicked Christmas pudding eaters), and long sessions spent 
          studying the principles of Markism, Lukism, and Johnism.  
          Until in the end even the English had had enough, and 
          decided to invite Charles II to take over.  They preferred to be 
          ruled by a drunkard who lived with a prostitute, that than do 
          without Christmas pudding. [p. 19-20]
     Strathern also exposes his distaste for actual philosophy (this is made clear in a different book discussed later in this post) by attacking the contributions of philosophers who dared to believe that metaphysics is a fit subject to explore.  I have no idea where this fits in with mainstream, working (in academia) philosophers; it certainly was not prominent at any of the various colleges/universities that saw fit to let me take classes in the subject.  He is more couched in his criticism here, allowing some merit at least to Kant, but only in the aesthetics of the system he created (German philosophers really do have an innate love of systems), not in value derived from the system.
           Without Descartes there might have been no modern philosophy.  
           But it was Locke who fathered its main line of development—the 
           British empiricists, who then provoked Kant to produce the 
           greatest philosophical system of them all, which in turn gave rise to 
           the elephantine folly of Hegel, and the consequent disbelief in all 
           systems by anyone except Marxists and optimistic punters. [p. 42]
     I would have preferred for Strathern to give more attention to Locke's works – he even goes a little light in quoting from them in the excerpts at the end of the book – but I cannot find a lot of fault in the book as a general overview.  It does help to be familiar with Locke's writing going in, but as a short biography of the man, his time, and his general ideas, this book is fine.

     Strathern has probably his best (certainly of those that I have read) book in the series with J.S. Mill in 90 Minutes (2002).  This isn't because Mill is the most influential philosopher he has covered – everyone after Kant has been trying to answer him, and Kant himself was just setting out to refute Hume, and Hume...well, he tried his best to establish that philosophy had no relation to the day-to-day life most of us engage in, the one that lets us hold a job, earn a living, have a good time...basically survive – but rather because Strathern finds many pointed ways to make Mill's arguments in favor of Utilitarianism and general equality easily recognizable in modern Western society.
     Not that the book has an encouraging start.  The entire introduction is dedicated to Jeremy Bentham, with Strathern seemingly eager to reduce Mill to simply repeat the ideas and take the credit.  Strathern does make the effort to show where Mill branched off on his own in regards to the philosophy, but he does so with much amateur guessing as to the psychological motives behind his work (having already exposed his distaste for psychology/psychiatry; it being a fake science, like economics, according to Strathern). 
      He does – supposing on Mill's sexual experience on resentment of his father aside – a rather elegant job of not letting the history of the man or his era overwhelm the deeper thoughts expressed in the philosophy while still doing justice to them.  Here are the various bits of the book that caught my attention:
           A few years later [after entering the civil service at the age of eighteen] 
           John Stuart Mill  also took on the task of of editing the influential 
           Westminster Review, which attracted such writers as Coleridge and
           George Eliot.  (Among this magazine's many philosophical and literary
           achievements were the introduction of Kant to general English 
           readership and a review of of the unknown Schopenhauer, which 
           overnight made him  belatedly famous in Germany. [p. 26]
     This really doesn't stress Mill's importance with the Westminster Review as it does the Review's importance all on its own.  Mill is, by extension, important early on because of his relationship to it rather than vice versa.
           Metaphysics Mill was content to dismiss, but German metaphysics was
           one of the few subjects that provoked his passionate outbursts.  He 
           even declared that being conversant with Hegel "tends to deprave one's
           intellect." [p. 27]
     This combines Strathern's general distaste for metaphysics and his outright hatred of Hegel (or at least the Hegelian philosophic system).  But at the same time it gives good insight into the otherwise proper – to the point of being a caricature of the trait – Mill having human emotions.
      Strathern points out Lobachevsky's introduction of non-Euclidean geometry, which rendered mathematics that "often had no correlate in the physical world.  Mathematical space and physical space were in no way identical: here experience and mathematics were two entirely different things." [p. 36]  This is related to how empiricism cannot explain a complete and thorough understanding of mathematics, a problem which Mill never quite overcame.
           Mill realized that the laws that govern economics are concerned with 
           production, not with distribution.  The productivity of labor, of the soil, of 
           machinery—these can all be organized more or less efficiently according 
           to certain objective laws.  These laws are affected by certain limiting 
           factors, such as nature (glut or famine), productivity (of labor, or machine),
           and so forth.  Wealth is thus produced according to laws and objective 
           factors which enable us to maximize its quantity. [p. 37]
     This is a huge breakthrough in terms of viewing economics.  It had, to date, only been concerned with looking at one half of the equation.  Mill argued that what had long been ignored was the moral component to the distribution of goods, services, and wealth.  It could not be approached with only efficiency or a desire to maximize transactions as the sole guiding principles.
           Utilitarianism remains at least the guiding principle in all labor-market 
           bargaining, union negotiations, and executive salary levels.  It may not be 
           adhered to, but it undeniably informs all such social interaction—it is the 
           one common denominator.  It remains a yard stick by which most of us 
           judge the distribution of wealth.  Ludicrously inflated earnings for senior 
           executives of large corporations are said to be "what the market dictates."  
           This is seen as a matter of production, beyond moral debate.  Objections to 
           such practice make use of Mill's original distinction and insist that it is a 
           matter of distribution.  This means that such remunerations are subject to 
           more than simply economic considerations.  They fall within the realm of 
           moral judgment.  And the most pertinent application here would seem to 
           many to be the Utilitarian idea of the common good. [p. 40-41]
     I would like to think that passage speaks for itself.
           Mill is well aware of Hume's argument and seeks to circumvent it.  He 
           does not smuggle an ought into his argument, where previously there had 
           only been an is; instead he presents a psychological fact.  At this point it is 
           worth reiterating in full Bentham's core Utilitarian principles, to which Mill 
           continued to subscribe: "Nature has placed mankind under the governance of 
           two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure.  It is for them alone to point out 
           what we ought to do, as well as to determine what we shall do....
           The standard of right and wrong [is] fastened to their throne.  They govern us 
           in all we do, in all we say, in all we think: every effort we make to throw off 
           subjection will serve but to demonstrate and confirm...[this] principle of 
           utility."  Mill concurs: "I regard utility as the ultimate appeal in all ethical 
           questions." [p. 46-47]
     Hume had a primary objection of how moral systems inserted ought to and ought not to into arguments without any real logical connection to the is and is not statements that preceded them.  While I find Utilitarianism to be a deeply flawed system for determining proper moral action, it was still an improvement over philosophies that stifled the sense of and role of self in determining moral choice.
           Bentham's concept of liberty had not been entirely theoretical.  His belief in the
           freedom of the individual had even led him to suggest that the law forbidding 
           homosexuality should be repealed: "How a voluntary act of this sort by two 
           individuals can be said to have anything to do with the safety of them or any 
          other individual whatever, is somewhat difficult to be conceived."  Such 
          advanced ideas were not widely promoted at a time when those "caught in 
          buggery" ended up on the gallows.  Betham's opinion on homosexuality, 
          especially coming from a man of high-minded principles who had no 
          sexual experience whatsoever—he remained chaste throughout his life—speaks 
          volumes for the liberalizing effect of his Utilitarianism. [p. 57-58]
     This is the kind of 1830s thinking that I would be okay with us returning to.  I'm not really sure if Bentham's sexuality, or thorough lack of sexual inclination, has any bearing on the merits of his argument; I wouldn't have presented it in a book about Mill. 
           At one point he was asked, "Did you declare that the English working 
           classes, though differing from some other countries in being ashamed of 
           lying, were yet 'generally liars'?"  Mill immediately replied, "I did."  The 
           working-class members of the audience responded with appreciative 
           applause, and Mill was duly elected. [p. 63-64]
     This is a funny story, made better because Mill's original plan for running for office was to do no campaigning, give no speeches, and engage in no debates – thinking that this freed up to voters to make informed choices without undue influence from the candidate.
           "So long as an opinion is strongly rooted in the feelings, it gains rather than 
           loses in stability by having a preponderant weight of argument against it. For 
           if it were accepted as a result of argument, the refutation of the argument 
           might shake the solidity of the conviction; but when it rests solely on feeling, 
           the worse it fares in argumentative contest, the more persuaded its adherents 
           are that their feelings must have some deeper ground, which the arguments 
           do not reach."  [p. 65]
     And that is how Mill crushes the faith-based/intuitive argument.
           "It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be 
           Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied.  And if the fool, or the pig, is of a 
          different opinion, it is because they only know their side of the question." 
          [p. 75, from Utilitarianism]
     Rather strong words for a man who was largely arguing in favor of pleasure (of a sort) at all times for the most people.
           "Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign." 
           [p. 76, from On Liberty]
     I would like to think the implications of that are easy to recognize.  And yet there is an entire political party dedicated to proving this is not the case, all the while arguing for limited government interference in the lives and over the rights of the individual.

     As strong as the book on Mill was, Hume in 90 Minutes (1999) proved to be a total disaster.  Not only does Strathern spend most of his time expressing how much he loves Hume (in that he is a Humean), he does this while failing to give an engaging (and possibility inaccurate) account of Hume's life. 

     Strathern clearly has a selective reading of Hume's philosophical works (nothing on the Clever Knave, nothing on how the mundane life is anathema to philosophical pursuits is mentioned here). Worse, he seems to have a fundamentally flawed view of it, thinking that there is something more than a general reduction to general uncertainty (on principle, not practicality, logic, reason, or experience). 
     I am not an expert on Hume.  I have read most of An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals (1751) as well as most of An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding (1748), with the support structure of a great professor and competent classmates to help me make sense of the material.  It would seem that Strathern either didn't read them or has a completely alien understanding of the general points of them. 
     If there were a book in this series to avoid, this is it.  Not because it is likely to offend, but because it really does nothing to help the reader gain a better understanding of the man or his works.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH (1971)

     I remember the first – and to that point, only – time I read Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH (1971).  It was well after Don Bluth's animated adaptation, The Secret of NIMH (1982), at least as how time is seen to a child.  To my knowledge, I was the last of my friends to actually read the book; I distinctly remember asking Joel Tysiak for the title of the book so that I didn't end up reading something nobody else had.  I can't explain why that last part was important because I still don't know.
      As a child, I don't know if I got beyond the simple narrative of the story.  It certainly was more tame than the movie.  No magic.  There isn't some sinister force working against the good rats.  It certainly didn't seem all that heroic.  The best thing going for it – it seemed – was that it had talking animals. 
     Giving it another pass as an adult, I was struck by O'Brien's economy of language.  He doesn't draw this tale out to preposterous lengths, choosing instead to keep the story continuously moving forward with only the necessary descriptive adjectives and adverbs.  He certainly challenges the vocabulary of the average 10 year old with it (I don't know the target audience, but it feels like it is pre-tween), but not in an aggressive or impolite manner.  Indeed, I can imagine children gleaning most of the meaning from context and happily turning to the (online) dictionary for any words beyond them.
     It has at its core an interesting concept for a children's book.  It is about the everyday heroics of parenting made manifest in the quest to keep a child safe.  The good relationship the late Jonathan Frisby built with the Rats (and how well he was regarded by other various creatures) allow for Mrs. Frisby to seek out allies and do right for her children.  She cannot do it alone, but she is not so obstinate as to even try to forgo seeking help.  She is also a good enough soul to offer help to others when she is in position to do as much.
     In an animal world where most of those she encounters are smarter than she is, Mrs. Frisby isn't rejected or looked down upon.  She is different, but she is still valued.  Largely treated as an equal by the Rats (who know she is not), she becomes a keeper of their history for their time on the Fitzgibbon farm and the informant who keeps them from being exterminated.  That O'Brien could do all of this with a gentle yet engaging tone, one that has certainly made many a young reader strive to find out what comes next without fretting about the lack of control the mouse has in a world of Rats, men, owls, and Dragon (the cat). 
     Mrs. Frisby is the ultimate mother-as-hero, but she is presented also as how a child would be among adults.  Her actions have merit.  She matters.  O'Brien makes it happen through the story, not as some tagged on lines to reassure the little ones that she is like them and they like her. 
     I certainly don't read much in the way of books aimed a children.  Hell, until recently, I could be said to not be doing much in the way of reading.  But I glad I gave this book another look.  It is a great example of how to write – and do so exceptionally well – for children.

Friday, May 18, 2012

How to Write Tales of Horror, Fantasy & Science Fiction (1987)

     How should I describe How to Write Tales of Horror, Fantasy & Science Fiction (1987)?
     Dated?  Sure, to a degree.  Unlike Crawford Killian's Writing Science Fiction and Fantasy (1998), it doesn't waste time with instructions on how to set up a web browser.  It does, however, include at least separate cautions against submitting dot matrix printed manuscripts.  I can view this more nostalgically since I was stuck with a dot matrix printer into the late 1990s.  And while I had no qualms about submitting school work from it (stupid me), I would like to think I would have popped for the $6 to have a decent print job from Kinko's if I were submitting a manuscript from that era.
     The contributing authors, all of whom were members/contributors of the Writer's Digest classes or workshops, were surprisingly willing to demean and criticize not just the work of other authors (and most certainly filmmakers), but those writers themselves.  This strikes a much different note from more recent books that stress such concepts as not looking down on (other) published authors.  Apparently, in the early-to-mid 1980s, it was fine for there to be pure way to write horror – which is the primary format in which the contributors worked – and it was different from the way all those successful, mass market appeal authors.  Except for when they wanted to sing the praises of a Writer's Digest member who also sold a lot of books.
     There wasn't much in practical advice in terms of how to develop horror, fantasy, or science fiction.  I guess that is kind of par for the course with these books; an assumption that one writes in a genre because they have a deep and abiding love of it and can draw from their experiences of what other writers have done with it.  Sure, How to Write Tales of Horror, Fantasy & Science Fiction does encourage prospective writers to read both good and bad genre writing.  How else is one supposed to know what to avoid?  More than that, one is supposed to gain a perspective as to which ideas have been ground into lifelessness – relying on an acceptance of cliché rather than anything the author could shape on his or her own.
     Even with its somewhat nebulous advice, I still found myself believing that I was better informed about different approaches to writing.  It is not filled with writing exercises that bog down writing classes (which have disputable positive impact beyond forcing one to write something), nor is it the how to format your manuscript book (very general advice on that topic).  It is mostly a varied group of authors – some quite famous – being somewhat joyful on the subject of writing.
     It is in giving me some insight into some of the published authors of the era (many of whom I had never heard of, let alone read their material).  As someone who is way behind in terms of his overall familiarity with what has been written – which comes from taking a decade long break from serious reading – I can use something like this as both a resource and a kick in the pants.  
     Now, for the quotes:

          "Technology poses no threat to the future of the book," said a 1984 
           report from the Library of Congress; but dull, uninspired or safe 
           fiction does. – p. 22, J.N. Williamson
     It is funny not just because technology is kicking the printed book's ass, but also because also because how how poorly the book was doing in Orwell's 1984.

           As with introducing a human character, you will need to bring out 
           the oddities of your alien gradually; remember that long strings of 
           adjectives are more like inventories than descriptions. – p. 58,
           Ardath Mayhar
     I would love for someone to print this out and paste it to the keyboards of certain writers.  Henry Lopez comes to mind.  "Heavy is the Head" is a prime example of a violation of this general principle.

          Don't mistake action for suspense.  A good novel must be filled 
          with action, and the characters must be kept in meaningful motion; 
          however, a tale can be composed of one gunfight and wild chase 
          after another yet be totally lacking in suspense.  Action becomes 
          suspenseful only if you write with a full understanding of the 
          following two truths: (1) suspense in fiction results primarily from 
          the reader's identification with and concern about lead characters 
          who are complex, convincing, and appealing; and (2) anticipation 
         of violence is infinitely more suspenseful than the violence itself.
         – p. 60, Dean R. Koontz

          There is nothing wrong with [daydream fiction].  (The only people 
          opposed to escape are jailers.) – p. 81, Darrell Schweitzer
     I just really like this general idea.  That fantasy (however one applies the term) is not inferior because it is fantasy.  It can only be inferior if it is written worse than the alternatives while having less to say.

          No writer has orchestrated terror in prose more carefully than 
          Lovecraft, but you won't learn how to write dialogue or deal 
          with character from him. – p. 97, Ramsey Campbell
     And now I understand why I don't think much of H.P. Lovecraft as an author.  Because I am all about character and dialogue (usually to the point that the plot gets washed away, which is a problem); I want those elements to be strong in what I read.

          Always have a rough idea of your first paragraph before you sit
          down to write, and then you won't be trapped into fearing the 
          blank page. – p. 99-100, Ramsey Campbell
     This may be the best general advice on how to proactively deal with writer's block.

          Unless you're fairly sure that you have an unstoppable need to 
          write, you're probably better off putting this book down and 
          going about your business. – p. 147, Alan Rodgers
     No need to sugar coat it, right?  Seriously, the contributors make quite a few efforts to let the reader know that the life of a writer may not be a great or profitable one.  Indeed, one of them died of carbon monoxide poisoning in his mobile home (using a gas powered generator for electricity because the power had been turned off).

Thursday, May 17, 2012

There is a difference between "challenging" and "frustrating"

     I first ran into people not quite understanding how to properly challenge their charges while I was in elementary school.  There were two teachers who ran the program for gifted (in the good way, not in the Midvale School way) children, NOVA.  Aside from the issues with gender inequality – they believed that girls were disadvantaged by traditional education methods, so their solution was to actively and purposely disadvantage the boys in their classes – they really had one major screw up.  While making the material covered more challenging was the right thing to do, they also decided to be much harsher in their grading.
     Not that there is anything wrong with tougher standards.  It is not irresponsible to tell children that they shouldn't be aiming for the 70% mark to get by.  Never mind that a C average would get a student booted out of the program, and even flirting with a low B led to some encouragement to migrate back to an existence with the normals.  Those were the standards, and even though we didn't know what they were going in, they were pretty regular.
     The problem was what it took to get that solid B average.  Many of us are used to the soft and easy break down of 90/80/70/60 percent for the floors of A/B/C/D grades.  It allows for an easy concept of how one is expected to perform.  In NOVA, the break down was a little different.  The As ranged from 100-96, Bs from 95-88, Cs from 87-78, and Ds from 77-70.  Now those aren't equal spreads, but I guess there is nothing that says they have to be.
     So, NOVA had tougher material and higher expectations in terms of performance in regards to grading.  That just makes for a challenging experience; you can make your own decisions as to whether or not that is a good thing for 8 year olds.  But these teachers also decided that they needed to be hypercritical when it came to grading and testing.  The multiple choice tests had between 8 and 10 possible answers, and the students received credit only if they picked the answer that best fit the expectations of the teachers (usually 5 of the choices were correct to some degree).  The essay tests (starting in third grade) demanded that the imposed format of topic sentence, supporting sentences, conclusion be used in every paragraph.  If a sentence were deemed to not be on point within the paragraph, that was 5% off right there.  Same for every spelling or punctuation error.
     Throw in the fact that neither of these women liked me (and said so to both me as a child and to my mother while they were trying to get my brother and I kicked out of the program despite our good performance), and I never really felt like I was being challenged by NOVA.  It was challenging, but I was just frustrated.  I was punished for my inability to spell – something with which I still struggle – and not allowed any degree of creativity in building my written arguments.  I wasn't rewarded for having a better understanding – as I saw it – than the teachers when I selected the answers that didn't need unstated qualifications (that they thought were implied in the questions).  It was a fight, all the time, and it did much to ruin any fun I had in school.
     And that lasted until about 2001.  Well, if I am going to be honest it will endure in some degree forever.  I have a general mistrust of teachers because of these women – the worse of the two has been reduced to teaching computer savvy students how to use outdated school computers at St. Christina School (3333 W 110th Street, Chicago, IL) – and, I would guess, that my similar distrust of women in general springs from the same source.  (So, for those who were so eager to blame someone I didn't meet until the fall of 1991, I suggest that you may be wrong.  Ask her.  I'm sure she'd agree that she is blameless.)
     One should never have a goal of frustrating people unless the desired result is to drive them away.  Challenging them is different.  In the endeavors we willingly take on, most of us like a challenge.  If it all comes too easy, we tend to get bored and move on to something else.  If it doesn't come at all, we'll just quit.  And we are right when we do so.
     I see a fair amount of RPG scenarios where the writers can't seem to make the distinction between frustrating players and challenging their characters.  Sometimes this is because they just don't understand the mechanics of the game.  Henry Lopez was a textbook offender of this when he put together a non-combat encounter  for his Living Arcanis mod "Sibling Rivalry" where every PC needed to be able to scale a 200 foot tall cliff.  Not in a, if we take a lot of time when can mitigate the difficulty for characters that don't do a great job of climbing.  No, it was a every character needs to make this check that needs to challenge good climbers.  Run as written, this encounter should kill PCs.  It should leave entire groups sitting at the base, unable to go on.  While that may be somewhat realistic, it isn't what players are looking for.
     More recently, I and my fellow players suffered through Kyle Baird's Pathfinder Society Organized Play scenario The Rats of Round Mountain—Part I: The Sundered Path (#3-20).  The author had a completely different understanding of the rules than those who have played the scenario; this is never a good sign.  The result in a combat encounter which essentially runs as all of the players can make some guesses and maybe not be able to hit while the NPCs can do lots of damage to the PCs.  Not fun.  Not even for the GM running it.
     This is not the first time that PFS has embraced the frustrating over challenging mindset.  Sometimes it is because the GM isn't running it correctly (those little creatures aren't supposed to be invisible throughout the encounter, DG), but more often it was because somebody couldn't tell the difference between challenging and frustrating.  Having to defeat a really tough bad guy?  Challenging.  Having to make more than 10 Fort saves in a scenario or pick up the plague?  Frustrating.  Needing to find a way to accomplish some tasks without resorting to combat?  Challenging?  Having all of the roleplaying elements of a sessions mean nothing because the investigation cannot reveal anything?  Frustrating.
     We want challenges.  But we expect to succeed in them.  We want to think that there is a chance of failure, a real chance, because it is that perceived risk that makes the success matter.  Now, I don't think any of us wanted failure to be an actual option in elementary school (and that is not something we really willingly enter).  And we would probably like for work to have a much greater chance of reward than real risk, since without it we may go hungry and be without shelter.
     When it comes to hobbies, we want our successes to mean something.  We want the frustrations to be minor, ones than can be overcome by a better understanding of the technique or situation at hand.  It is why we don't stick with playing miniature golf or wiffle ball as adult hobbies.  It is why – if we are being serious – we don't try to learn to play a musical instrument without some form of assistance or aid.
     I guess I am one of those people who frustrates far many more than I simply challenge.  I would apologize, but that seems like a lot of work; I'd have to track down people who I would just assume have forgotten about me.  So, I have something to work on.  But nobody is really adopting me as a hobby, so they all have the option of just walking away.  I like my time spent playing RPGs.  I just wish that the people who took the time to write the material had a better understanding of the difference between challenging and frustrating.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

The Complete Maus (1991*)

     I am going to come right out and say it: I was expecting more from The Complete Maus (1991).  I was expecting a riveting telling of the personal trials and travails of Vladek Spiegelman during WWII and the Holocaust.  I also thought that the artwork would contribute to the story.  I don't think I either happened.  Art Spiegelman has trouble telling his parents' story because – and this is most explicit – he really has no affection (beyond familiarity) for his father, Vladek.  Since Anja, Art's mother, died well before he decided to take on the project, she could not be any help.
     Unfortunately, it seems that Speigelman was more than willing to settle for depicting his struggle to understand his father's struggles and life rather than actually understanding it.  As Vladek is, almost universally, depicted as a miserly asshole, it is hard to imagine why Spiegelman would turn to him for the story.  There were – we are told – many other survivors of Auschwitz in the neighborhood and amongst his fathers friends.  Surely these people would be able to give a better account of what actually happened.
     But maybe Spiegelman had no real interest in the reality of the experiences of Auschwitz or the invasion of Poland.  Maybe the entire exercise is one of trying to reconcile the shadowy understanding he had of his emotionally battered parents when he was a child with the account his father could give him as an adult.  Even so, I feel that Maus fails here as well.  Spiegelman spends much of his time wallowing in his frustrations in dealing with his father rather than showing any level of understanding.
     Now, I will admit that I am coming very late to Maus.  There has been much media about the Holocaust since Spiegelman started the project, so I am sure that I am unfairly prejudiced in expecting it to build upon material that came after it.  At the same time, there doesn't seem to be a compelling narrative to the story; Spiegelman is trading on the horrors his parents endured and survived without giving them a proper representation.
     Worst (for me), I felt that the style detracted from the story.  The choice to have the different races represented as different animals feels small minded and prejudicial rather than revealing. Polish pigs, German cats (Katzen?), French frogs, and Jewish mice may be easy to identify (actually, the cats aren't except for the fact they don't look like the other creatures).  All of the depictions are static in the extreme, even when Spiegelman tries to impart action or movement.  It looks and feels cold and impersonal, which is certainly not the intended effect (though it may be how Spiegelman felt while working through this).
     Now, this is not to say that I didn't find Maus worthwhile.  It is, but it certainly doesn't seem – 20+ years later – groundbreaking or exceptional.  It is too happily self-referential.  Ultimately, I think that it does little to illuminate anything about the survivors other than that they can be assholes or emotionally ruined in other ways as well as being survivors.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

The Essential Marcus Aurelius (2008)

     Want the general experience of having read Marcus Aurelius' Meditations (160-180) without the tedium of actually having to read the full text?  I would suggest The Essential Marcus Aurelius (2008).  Not that I'm any kind of expert on the subject, but I know I was greatly appreciative of much of the seemingly redundant philosophy.
     Not that there is anything wrong with what Aurelius wrote – it is just that the same ideas are covered with more skill and tact in other philosophies and/or religions.  It is clear that Aurelius is largely afraid (to some degree) of his eventual death, and found it a constant struggle to find meaning in his life in light of this.  He seems oddly appreciative of life for a man who spent his time killing people at the fringes of the Empire. 
     The strange thing is that the commonness of his writing is what makes it seem wholly unimportant.  George Gershwin seems to have a better manner to explain that fame is not guaranteed to endure in "Nice Work if You Can Get It" (1937), and even there it was as an aside to the notion that love may be a greater reward that external validations,. 
      Anyway, I have selected a few things from Aurelius' Meditations as condensed in this book:

"It is as if someone standing by a fountain of pure and sweet water were to yell curses at it, yet the fountain never stops bubbling fresh water.  Even if you should hurl mud or even throw shit into it, the water will quickly disperse it and wash it away, and in no way be defiled.  How, then, can you have such a fountain within yourself?  By guarding your freedom each and every hour with kindness, simplicity, and self-respect."  [p. 65-66]
     I mostly like this one because Aurelius seems to be okay with drinking shitty water.  Because the fecal matter is going to settle in that fountain.  I just don't think he thought this through.

"Stop philosophizing about what a good man is and be one." [p. 76]
     Good advice, right?  But it kind of requires that he stops writing at that point.  There is an entire school of thought that proper philosophers live their philosophies rather than detail them for others.

"[W]hoever gives in to fear, pain, or anger is a fugitive." [p. 77]

"How ridiculous, what a stranger in his own land, is the person who is surprised by anything that happens in life." [p. 92]

Monday, May 14, 2012

The Darkest Hour (2011)

     Wasting little time establishing characters or their lives, The Darkest Hour (2011) does everything it can to get right to its alien invasion and special effects.  Then, surprisingly, the aliens are largely relegated to the background and the characters who haven't been developed are left to wander through largely undamaged Moscow.  And it is a Moscow full of clean streets – except for people-ash – and upscale shopping malls.  The shots of Red Square essentially scream out "Come visit Moscow, Western tourists."
     Despite its many flaws (some of which I will address), I mostly enjoyed The Darkest Hour.  Even with the cast seeming like they were left on their own, I thought they did a serviceable job in moving the story along with something resembling a human element.  Director Chris Gorak (I've seen both of his feature films!) may have been more concerned with his camera angles and lighting than consistent emotion, but I suspect that the underplaying of the obvious end of the world fits with the target audience's attitude about everything that isn't them
     The Darkest Hour rates ahead of many other films that have been set behind the old Iron Curtain, not in small part because it had a decent production budget.  However, the limits of that budget can be seen a little too often.  There is the time killing not-quite montage that lets us know the prospective heroes have spent five days in a storeroom (that always has light, even at night, despite the fact that the electricity wasn't working at the time), the complicated overuse and under-use of the aliens making electronic devices function just by being near them (we all know that when a cell phone powers up, it rings...right?), and the very disappointing reveal of the aliens once they are made visible – it is not as awful as the CGI shark that eats Samuel L. Jackson in Deep Blue Sea (1999), but it is not much better.
     There is some poor understanding of history (or at least the presentation of it) with the Russians who will not retreat from their homeland and who will battle the aliens no matter what.  Then again, I have no idea what kind of factual history was taught during the waning days of the U.S.S.R., so maybe this is a good representation of what those characters would believe.  Of course, the story also features a pack of characters who are in Moscow (on purpose) who cannot speak nor read Russian.  But rather than have this contribute to the strangeness and sense of danger or doom, most of the Russian characters can speak English so as to move the story along.
     I do like that the film doesn't mind killing its characters, but there is one character who was screaming to be killed (in gloating over the aliens) and it didn't happen.  That kind of bummed me out, but I guess whether that death happened or didn't, it would be the same cliche.  The Darkest Hour doesn't run from cliches, but it does try to keep them in their place; they help establish the world more than the expectations of the story.  Okay, the entire plot is essentially a kind of cliche by now, but wholly reworking it would just be an avant-garde experiment. 
     Gorak tried a little bit of that in his first feature, Right at Your Door (2006).  It felt forced there, and I would like to think he thought that being more traditional approach would be more palatable.  What I think he needed was a larger cast of starting characters, and for those characters to have been developed.  The Darkest Hour is, essentially, a disaster movie.  The formula is to get us to care about the characters and their situations, and then to watch their struggles after the disaster.  Like in The Grey (2011), it is acceptable to slowly kill off those characters.  Actually, it would make a hell of a lot more sense to do it in an alien invasion movie than a trek-through-the-wilderness-while-not-being-smart-enough-to-make-spears-to-fend-off-the-wolves movie.
     The Darkest Hour – it doesn't require much thinking or commitment to its characters, not does it have the best effects (but the people turning to dust it cool), but it is a fun diversion. 

Friday, May 11, 2012

Inglorious Basterds (2009)

     I don't think Quentin Tarantino is a genius filmmaker.  Not even a little.  He made a good – especially given budgetary constraints é adaptation of City on Fire (1987) with Reservoir Dogs (1992), making it his own in the process.  That was 20 years ago.  Okay, it was less than that when he was making Inglorious Basterds (2009), but it was still a long time.  Since then he has made a series of overloved films that, when divorced from the adulation people seem to need to heap upon Tarantino, look like the trainwrecks I've taken them to be.  Okay, maybe they are fine films and I dislike them because I find Tarantino to be habitually unfocused and too in-love with extraneous bullshit to be bothered with telling an actual story.
     Inglorious Basterds is a little different.  It is loaded down with too many elements that don't seem to have any needful relation to the central story.  This would be fine in a novel (if well written), but there is a reason why movies need to be leaner than books.  Tarantino devotes a twenty minute scene to introducing a character and then kills that same character off in the following scene.  And neither scene plays particularly well because they all feel like they have no real relation to the heart of the story.  But Tarantino isn't interested in more than the loose framework of a coherent central plot.  It wouldn't allow him to indulge in various strange side characters, or to kill them off at the drop of a Nazi scalp.
     This is an odd war fantasy, but more than that, it is a movie that has no love of the actors in it.  Michael Fassbender (Lt. Wilcox) and Mélanie Laurent (Shosanna Dreyfus) try to rise above the mediocrity Tarantino wants to enforce in the cast, but there isn't enough of them or their characters to salvage the film.  Yes, I'm aware that many people (critics included) had praise for Christoph Waltz as Colonel Landa.  I have no idea what they were watching.  Other than Tarantino wanting Nazi officers to have some occult supernatural ability to spot imposters or weakness in their enemies (it isn't just Landa who gets this), the character is an unfunny joke.
     I had originally intended to give a better accounting of my thoughts on the film.  Why bother though?  Those who needed to see it did so when it came out.  Tarantino fans undoubtedly love it and cannot be swayed to think otherwise.  All I can do is hope that Brad Pitt never gives a performance as bad ever again.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Helena from the Wedding (2010)

     I want to say something positive about Helena from the Wedding (2010), so I'll go with something like Lee Tergesen (Alex) looks younger than he did during his time on Wanted (2005).  Maybe that's good living.  Or maybe it is karma for having the misfortune of having to make his bones – in part – by playing Chet in the TV version of Weird Science (1994-97).  But he certainly deserves something better than this movie.
      Actually, all of the cast does.  Melanie Lynskey (Alice) – best known as Rose from Two and a Half Men (2003-present) – doesn't get to do much more than mope and drag exposition out of Dagmara Dominczyk (Eve) about an unfulfilling marriage.  (Ms. Dominczyk appears to be a serial TV guest star, but I'm guessing she does most of her work on the stage.)  Alice and Eve don't seem to have much in common, except that they like each other.  No reason to figure out how they came to be such close friends, or to even hint at it in the film.  Corey Stoll (Steven) – an actor best remembered for boldly trying to bring the big cop mustache back to prime time during his run on Law & Order: Los Angeles (2010-11) – is a mostly vacuous character, who tries to find some level of redemption (in terms of development) with a pair of lines late in the movie.
     Other TV vets include Dominic Fumusa (Don), Paul Fitzgerald (Nick), Jessica Hecht (Lynn), and – with the worst British accent this side of Madonna – Gillian Jacobs (Helena).  All have acted well in other projects, but none of them seem comfortable in this.  Fumusa comes closest to finding any sympathy from writer/director Joseph Infantolio, but he just can't get there.
     The movie was clearly shot quickly and on the cheap.  None of the shots are specifically lighted for those shots.  It shows (I wouldn't have thought it would be this obvious, but it is).  And Infantolio favored labored, lingering shots that did nothing other than make the story drag.  This was made worse by the ten second dissolves he thought made the metaphors work.  Not so much.
     Oh, and the story?  Imagine a bunch of mostly WASPish couples (and a pair of singles) were together, drinking, doing some drugs (let's not judge, right?), and finding out that there are problems in their relationships.  Life crises included: having a play that only ran two weeks, not being liked by coworkers, and (apparently) not knowing when to use your British accent.  There is a couple with real problems, but since their only settings are she's a bitch & he doesn't earn any money (she makes quite a bit as a successful lawyer) and vigorous fucking, it is hard to view them as anything other than caricatures.  Helena is supposed to be a plot device, but she doesn't do much more than occupy space.
     I want to believe that the actors did this movie as a favor to someone, probably Infantolio.  It would have been nice if he could have returned the favor and given them a better script or at least taken care to shoot it better.  This movie is one that should be avoided.  There is no real point to it, at least not the point it seems to want to make.